The Mind of Herbert Clunkerdunk, a comedy of the absurd

The Mind of Herbert Clunkerdunk, a comedy of the absurd

Monday, 7th February 2022
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Humour is hard work but BBC Two’s surreal short The Mind of Herbert Clunkerdunk takes the painstaking process of raising a laugh to new extremes

The Mind of Herbert Clunkerdunk is a weird and wonderful place to be, as the first BBC Two series in 2019 demonstrated to the nation. Each of the 15-minute episodes saw comedian Spencer Jones’s alter ego navigate the basic tasks of adulting while distracted by his own imagination as conveyed through surreal sketches and musical mayhem.

Ahead of its second series, last month, an RTS event gave a preview of the action to come – and insight into the psyche of Jones, a Bafta and Edinburgh Comedy Award nominee.

It quickly became clear that the absurd humour which defines the character comedy wasn’t as off-the-cuff as it might appear. “I do a lot of messing around before I’ve even started to think in a focused way about episodes,” Jones explained. “I mess around with music, then there’s objects, and then there’s the life stuff that happens with the kids – going to the dentist’s or the supermarket.

“You start to get these jigsaw pieces, and then they start to form themes and stories. Like there’s a problem with a kid at school who’s not eating properly. That would give me the idea of putting a bit of broccoli on a remote-control car, so I can drive it into their face.”

The “out there” humour sets it far apart from other current comedy shows, which brings an inclusive ­element to it, said Lucy Pearman, who plays Clunkerdunk’s wife, Bobby Kindle, in the series.

“I said to Spencer, I think this show is going to save lives. If only I’d seen this growing up,” she said. “There has always been alternative comedy, but it’s so relaxing to know you’re not the only one [with a runaway imagination]. It’s not always going to be for everyone, but I’m so happy for the people it is for.”

"This job is a dream. Then it slowly contorts into a nightmare"

Described by Jones as “a sketch show disguised as a narrative”, he takes on the writing of the series alone before handing the script to director Martin Stirling. “To begin with, they look like ordinary scripts. You read through them and it’s an absolute joy,” said Stirling. “You get to breaking it down and you realise that this job is a dream. Then it slowly contorts into a nightmare as you start to think, ‘how the hell are we going to execute it?’.

“In any ordinary script, you might have a two-minute scene in a kitchen between a man and his wife. In Clunkerdunk, when you break it down, you think, ‘OK, well, this is a prop, and that’s a puppet, and that’s a costume’, and you realise that two pages of a script have things such as visual effects, special effects and multiple costume changes.”

In taking an idea-packed series from script to screen, producer Ben Worsfield explained that it was extra critical that the crew understood Jones’s vision: “If Spencer wrote down every single detail and exactly how it was meant to be achieved, the script would be hundreds of pages long. So nothing can be taken for granted. In the read-through, there was a line where it said, ‘He puts the kettle on’, and someone asked, ‘Is that a costume?’ There are no stupid questions where this show is concerned.”

The Mind of Herbert Clunkerdunk (credit: BBC)

One of its running gags is the ping-pong-ball eyes that give the characters a cartoonish look that’s entirely fitting for the show. The joke might seem simple, but the preparation for it is immense. Clunkerdunk’s character alone has 50 pairs of eyes that are colour-coded, numbered carefully and mapped to each line.

“We spent several nights in Spencer’s hotel room with them all laid out on a table,” said Worsfield. “He’d pop them in, do the line in the mirror, turn to me, do the line with eyes in, and if it got a laugh from both of us, we’d put the code into the script.”

On set, “for some reason, I became the eye-wrangler,” he continued. “They all had to be laid out on a baking tray in the right order, right by the actor, so we didn’t lose any time. I was wandering around looking like the weirdest waiter ever…”

While the ping-pong-ball eyes make a welcome return for the second series, new aspects to look forward to include guest stars Felicity Ward and Vic Reeves, as well as Jones’s two children. Keeping it in the family, Jones’s brother makes cameo appearances in two scenes to play Clunkerdunk’s mother and brother. “He looks a bit like me,” Jones explained. “So I wanted that second where you think, ‘Is that Spencer?’”

The busy days of filming meant that scenes were often rehearsed and workshopped thoroughly before cameras were turned on. However, “the prep was relentless, so sometimes there wasn’t really time for that,” admitted Jones. “Sometimes, we would get on set, and it was the first chance we had to discuss it.

“Actually, sometimes that’s for the better, because it keeps things fresh and spontaneous.”

To add to the challenge, the team incorporated more songs this time around, even though the music video format put extra pressure on each day of filming. “We had this thing called ‘the Clunkerdunk 10’, which was a fairly regular occurrence at the end of the day, when we would film an entire scene in 10 minutes when we really needed two hours,” said Worsfield. “I hated calling it that initially, but figured we had to own it.”

Did the team ever have to say no to Jones’s ideas? “No, we always found a way,” said Stirling. “Chris Fergusson, our DoP, shared a phrase that was adopted as an unofficial motto: ‘The obstacles are the path’. You’re constantly hit by all these things that are stopping you from achieving what you want to do, and it’s about being able to adapt and find your way around those.

“With Clunkerdunk, things are always changing up to the last minute – even in the sound mix, we’re adding in ideas or doing something that makes that joke land or creating a whole different joke. Yes, it is a challenge, but we try to do things that we haven’t seen before and probably will never see again.

“As Spencer says all the time, it’s a leap of faith. With comedy, you’ve got to take a risk, you’ve got to be bold. If you’re not, it’s vanilla and all the same. Hopefully, the risk has paid off.”

Report by Shilpa Ganatra. ‘The Mind of Herbert Clunkerdunk preview and Q&A’ was an RTS event held on 24 January. It was chaired and produced by journalist Emma Bullimore.