In 1989, Victoria Wood produced a series of six half-hour TV plays, featuring all her classic collaborators - Anne Reid, Celia Imrie and of course Julie Walters to name a few. My dad - the biggest VW fan I know - introduced me to them, and they really are brilliant (here's a link to watch the first one). But almost as impressive is my dad's almost word-for-word recollection every line in every episode.
My equivalent of this is Cabin Pressure, a radio sitcom following the adventures of a tiny charter airline - one jet, two pilots, the CEO and her flight attendant son. For all of his sketch comedy prowess, it's in this show that John Finnemore (also a huge Victoria Wood fan) shows the real subtlety of his craft. I can quote most of the lines before they come, and its delightful familiarity has earned it the status of 'noise that I put on in the background as I fall asleep.'
Before you ask, yes I did just turn 27, and that means it's time to focus on the important things in life. Like putting every episode of my favourite Radio 4 sitcom in order of preference. For reference, each one is named for the destination the characters are flying to in that episode, and alphabetical order roughly matches chronological order.
If you've never listened to Cabin Pressure before, this is my fervent recommendation. (Series 2 is well worth an audible credit, at least.) If you do heed my advice, let me know what you think! And if you're familiar with the show, I'd love to hear what you think of my ranking.
24. Abu Dhabi
At this point, it’s worth saying that there isn’t a single episode of Cabin Pressure that I don’t like. These bottom six episodes are the ones that I don’t instinctively come back to when I want to listen to one episode on its own. Mostly this is because their plots are slightly weaker and less inventive than average, though there are exceptions.
Helsinki, for instance, takes bottom spot because I can’t stand listening to Carolyn’s great nephew Kieran - despite a compelling B plot concerning Douglas’ small-time smuggling business. And while Cabin Pressure’s bottle episodes all showcase Finnemore’s pleasing knack for one-act plays, Fitton is the weakest among them.
Most of series 1 ends up here, but that’s largely because later seasons are an improvement. I'd still urge the keen radio 4 listener to start at the beginning, because early episodes like Abu Dhabi and Boston do an excellent job setting up the main cast and their relationships. It's always a pleasure to hear how the characters grow from colleagues who don’t really like each other to true friends over the course of the series.
20. Edinburgh (Birling Day #1)
18. Timbuktu (Birling Day #3)
17. Molokai (Christmas Special)
15. Paris (Birling Day #2)
11. Ottery St Mary
The middle group is made up of episodes that aren’t my favourite, but that I’m always in the mood to listen to. All of the Birling Day episodes are here - a series-long tradition similar to Brooklyn Nine Nine’s Halloween heists - along with the stand-out episodes from season one.
Excellent guest performances from Helen Baxendale (Cremona) and John Sessions (Douz) keep their respective episodes close to the top of this group, while the revolting posh boy Mr Birling is another larger-than-life jewel in the crown of Geoffrey Whitehead’s BBC comedy roles.
Wokingham, though an excellent episode, loses points for me because I’m not hugely fond of Martin’s relationships with his siblings - though his mum Wendy, played to wholesome perfection by Prunella Scales, is one of my favourite single-episode characters.
By the same token, Yverdon-les-Bains and Ottery St Mary earn the top spots in this group partly because Anthony Head’s recurring character Herc (short for Hercules - after the aircraft, not the hero) is always a welcome addition to the cast.
This middle group represents the real essence of Cabin Pressure. The world’s smallest airline bites off more than it can chew, hijinks ensue, and everything’s wrapped up in time for tea (with the exception of Yverdon-les-Bains, the cliffhanger at the end of series 4). The comedy is bright and original, and even the most fleeting of characters have a depth and warmth that Finnemore always brings to his writing. Each one is sure to brighten any commute, or send this veteran listener to sleep with a smile on his face.
9. Vaduz 8. Zurich (Two-part Finale Special) 7. Newcastle 6. Qikiqtarjuaq 5. St Petersburg 4. Kuala Lumpur 3. Limerick 2. Gdansk 1. Ipswich
And finally, we have the top ten. Episodes that are, in my humble opinion, among the best half hours of comedy Radio 4 has ever seen (or heard, I suppose). This group is mostly made up of episodes from the second and third series, which I think represents the show’s peak - though it was only once I’d put season 2 episodes in each of the top four spaces that I realised which is my favourite. There’s a strong showing from the final series as well, though. Vaduz introduces us to the delightful Theresa, who disappoints only by turning up so late into the show’s run. Xinzhou is a charmingly silly bottle episode, fitting for the final stand-alone instalment before Yverdon-les-Bains and Zurich tie up all the loose ends. And then there’s the finale itself, a heartfelt ending that is far more than a victory lap, and which truly is worthy of all that came before it. Found among these episodes are the show’s most memorable moments. Comedic ones, like Arthur’s struggles to improve his stewarding skills in Kuala Lumpur; and more solemn, character-driven moments, especially between pilots Arthur and Douglas. Newcastle deserves a special mention here, not only for its excellent guest appearances by Mark Williams and Anna Crilly, but also for that of Tom Goodman-Hill, an emergency understudy for Martin who steps into the role with fidelity and aplomb. There is so much more I could mention about this show. I haven’t even mentioned its stunning, star-studded central cast, which includes a very non-Sherlock-sounding Benedict Cumberbatch. But to say any more would only ruin your enjoyment. So please go find it for yourself, and I sincerely hope that you - like myself and Arthur - think it’s brilliant.