It was over a year ago now that John Finnemore’s Cabin Pressure ended and I’m still listening to at least an episode every week. For those who don’t know Cabin Pressure is a Radio 4 sitcom written by John Finnemore and starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Roger Allam, Stephanie Cole and Finnemore himself as well as Anthony Head in the latter episodes. It is based on the activities of small airline (airdot, in fact) MGN air, their sole plane Gertie and the problems they encounter as they attempt not to fail as a business.
Overall, 26 episodes were made (one for each letter of the alphabet, 27 if you include the double-length finale as 2) and what is really incredible is there is not a bum note in the lot. Every episode is packed with a brilliantly funny situation, wall-to-wall laugh out loud jokes, a host of ingeniously written Douglas(Allam) quips, Carolyn(Cole) abusing her power in the perfect comic way, Martin(Cumberbatch) trying and failing to impress his seniority on those around him and Arthur(Finnemore) being the hilariously dim-witted but lovably optimistic flight attendant.
What Finnemore manages to do in these episodes is so perfect for the radio in that he doesn’t have to do the classic audio-exposition of ‘wow this big red box at my feet sure is strange’ but makes everything just make sense in what’s around and who’s there without the characters having to tell the audience every single detail. I would argue in this way audio-only sitcoms are harder to write than their televisual counterparts because you can’t rely on a visual gag, it’s all got to be in the writing and with the live audience Cabin Pressure has it’s going to be blatantly obvious if a joke doesn’t hit.
My personal highlight of each episode though is Douglas’s word games. As pilots the main characters have long stretches of time to kill so they play games to pass the time ranging from ‘people who should be evil but aren’t’ to Brians of Britain. The game highlight of the show as a whole though has to be the travelling lemon, a supposedly classic flight game where a lemon has to be hidden in plain sight of the passengers by one of the flight crew then found and re-hidden by their competitor (I’d also like to give an honourable mention to yellow car, a game in which the prime objective is, when you see a yellow car, to say yellow car).
Credit has to be given to the acting as well as the writing with every performance being spot on between timing and intonation. Because of the way these characters are brought to life in their voices, even without the knowledge of what the actors look like you can picture exactly who they would be. Anthony Head also gives a spot on performance in the latter series as the love-interest/sparring partner of Carolyn, Herc playing it perfectly, both in his verbal melee and as the rival of Douglas in being extremely similar to him but generally better. He works for a better airline, gets paid more and most importantly, is a captain.
Cabin Pressure whilst not hugely known is pretty much as successful as it could be for what it is. A large amount of the population just don’t listen to the radio or download audio based comedy. It does have a large fan following though, while partially based on the profile of Benedict Cumberbatch there is a real love for the show as a brilliantly written comedy. These were both probably part of the reason that for it’s final live record Cabin Pressure broke the record for most requests for audience tickets, 22,844 for only 200 tickets.
While there won’t be any more Cabin Pressure you can still get it on itunes and Audible as well as occasionally repeated on the radio.