In terms of comedy, a successful Edinburgh Festival show can transform you from obscurity to overnight comedic superstars. This is exactly what happened in the summer of 1979 when a group of university graduates debuted at the infamous festival. New College Oxford alumni: Angus Deayton, Geoffrey Perkins and Michael Fenton Stevens enjoyed a successful stint at the festival and within a few months found themselves with their own BBC Radio 4 series. Radio Active ran for seven years and satirised and toiled with the very medium of radio. Sending up the triviality of daily radio shows was what the format thrived upon and it was only a matter of time before television came calling.
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KYTV was first broadcast on BBC2 on 12th May 1989 following along the same lines as its former radio self with the one major difference that instead of satirising radio, the team now aimed to send up big budget Light Entertainment shows of the day. Subverting and gently mocking the biggest shows of the late 1980’s including ITV’s Game For a Laugh was something new for comedy despite impressionists creating a heightened image of our best loved TV shows. Yet this was something completely different and set about toying with the very disciplines of television like never before. Surviving for three series KYTV set the benchmark for TV comedy to laugh at itself and as a bi-product made stars of Angus Deayton and the late Geoffrey Perkins.
1989 was a big year in the career of Michael Fenton-Stevens. Not only did Radio Active make the seamless transition from radio to television but a guest appearance in a TV sitcom would unbeknownst to Michael create an unbreakable bond between him and arguably the biggest sitcom of all time. Cast as holiday rep Alan Perkins in the 1989 episode of Only Fools and Horses, his character was tasked with uncovering the truth behind Rodney’s prize winning painting which Del entered into a children’s competition. For this Del convinces Rodney to disguise as a fifteen year old so that he, Rodney and Cassandra could enjoy a complimentary Spanish holiday. IWriter John Sullivan had failed to create a satisfactory payoff to the episode and in a discussion with the whole cast it was decided that Rodney should win the Spanish lottery but due to his apparent age he wasn’t old enough to receive it and it fell to Michael to deliver such a devastating blow.
This cameo appearance would help to identify Michael as a TV character actor and despite having just a few minutes of airtime during the episode, is the role which continues to gain him recognition. This connection with Michael and Only Fools is shared by the whole cast and even thirty years later, Sir David Jason and Nicholas Lyndhurst have never forgotten his vital contribution to such a classic episode. With such a varied career, Michael finds it fascinating that a small cameo in a sitcom has the ability to define your public image. Yet to be part of such an iconic series is a real accolade and he never tires of reminiscing about his time on set of Britain’s best sitcom.
Just six years later Michael would return to sitcom when he secured a part in the 1996 gentle comedy Pilgrim’s Rest alongside Gwen Taylor and the late Gary Olsen. It’s clear that there’s no generic formula for a successful sitcom but if the premise is set in such tight confines as a pub characters are forced to unwillingly interact with each other which results in the illusion of entrapment. The pub setting is a great device for comedy with such diverse clientele coming in and out. This in turn expands the stories which contributed to the arc of the series. Unfortunately there was a culture in the nineties where pilots and series were created which didn’t get recommissioned and Michael recalls often starring in pilots that didn’t see the light of day. So surviving for one series was an achievement for Pilgrims Rest but Michael remains adamant that the show had much more scope.
More recently Michael has swapped comedy for children’s TV as an anchor for been 3rd and Bird on CBeebies. This is a substantial sea change for the actor with a formidable comedy career and has expanded his audience to incorporate the other side of the entertainment spectrum. Now a more mature comedy actor, Michael is extremely proud to continue to secure roles in comedy and theatre of the day. Celebrating forty years since the Radio Active team debuted at Edinburgh, the comedy actor shows no signs of slowing down and his recent comedy credentials cement this. It was a pleasure speaking with Michael Fenton-Stevens and wish him all the very best for the rest of his remarkable career.