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‘The Completely Made-Up Adventures Of Dick Turpin’ is an absolute hoot

Turpin’s adventures are embellished with lavish production values and cinematic sequences, and the ensemble is studded with favourites from current British comedy

A still fom ‘The Completely Made-Up Adventures Of Dick Turpin’

By Raja Sen

LAST PUBLISHED 08.03.2024  |  04:00 PM IST

First I must doff my hat to the show’s title. The Completely Made-Up Adventures Of Dick Turpin, a comedy on Apple TV+, sounded to me merely irreverent, a funny anachronistic take on something historical, till you consider that history itself is largely made-up and bastardised. It is graffiti on the walls of ruins.

Anyway, on to Dick. Dick Turpin was an infamous British highwayman, an 18th century poacher and horse thief who, at the time of his trial, was romanticised through sensationalist pamphlets and later in novels, an outlaw turned into a folk hero for the amusement of the masses. The dashing brigand became a heroic trope—one that generations of Indian children encountered in middle-school in the form of a poem called The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes, a dramatically violent rhyme that we were made to memorise.

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Dramatically violent is not on brand for this latest Turpin incarnation, starring a flamboyant and fashionable Noel Fielding. Fielding, an absurdist comedian in Goth make-up, has dazzled in iconically surreal productions as The Mighty Boosh, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace and The IT Crowd—where he played the scary employee lurking in the basement—but also something as overwhelmingly wholesome as the beloved Great British Bake-Off, where, as a co-host, he coos around cake makers and giggles over weak pastry-themed puns. This new and relentlessly silly show gives free rein to both loony and loveable sides of Fielding’s persona, marking him out as a outlaw who describes himself as having “an easy charm that the mums enjoy".

This Dick Turpin is, like the real one, the son of a butcher. Unlike—in all likelihood—the real one, he happens to be a vegan. Unable thus to take up the family trade, he moves out and, through great whimsical happenstance, becomes the leader of a ragtag gang of highwaymen. His first order of business as boss? To upgrade their outfits, of course. He bedecks them in a shinty material he calls “pleather"— parsnip leather—and starts doing exit surveys after having robbed people. “I’m new school," he explains to his tied-up victims, “There’s going to be less violence on my watch. More charm. Maybe even some panache."

This panache comes through Turpin’s cool and unearned confidence that things won’t go wrong, but it mostly comes through his chronicler Eliza Bean, a woman writing his adventures and popularising his legend. Played by Dolly Wells, she’s a writer realising the importance of genre and audience. “I used to write these beautiful plays, poems, but no one cared," she tells Turpin, explaining her decision to turn to true-crime. “You write about the most horrific murder and people can’t get enough of it."

Turpin’s adventures here are embellished with lavish production values and cinematic sequences—including redheaded witches who turn men into chickens—and the entire ensemble is studded with popular favourites from current British comedy. Mark Heap plays Turpin’s long-suffering butcher father, Asim Chaudhry plays an incompetent warlock, Greg Davies plays the roughest of the highwaymen, Jessica Hynes plays the aforementioned witch, and Diane Morgan shows up to admonish a warlock (and to remind us that when history begins to get really silly, Philomena Cunk can’t be far behind).

The Completely Made-Up Adventures Of Dick Turpin, therefore, feels familiar. You can trace its comedic lineage from Blackadder, Robin Hood: Men In Tights, The Princess Bride, even a dash of Monty Python And The Holy Grail lunacy right up to recent revisionist comedies like Upstart Crow, The Great and the recent Our Flag Means Death where good-natured pirates laugh and love across the high seas. Our Flag Means Death, where Taika Waititi plays the notorious pirate Blackbeard as a repressed homosexual, is the closest echo to this, but that show has become about the fluidity of sexuality, while Dick Turpin is about its own silliness. There is no larger point, which means the gags come thicker and faster. And—given the protagonist’s first name—they’re frequently as juvenile as you’d imagine.

Turpin’s gang includes Honesty (Duayne Boachie), Moose (Marc Wootton) and Nell (a superb Ellie White) and they’re having an infectiously good time, though the bad guys have even more fun. Hugh Bonneville of Downton Abbey is Turpin’s nemesis, the thieftaker Jonathan Wilde, out to earn a 95% commission on all robberies, and the actor plays him with pomp, while Tamsin Greig plays his boss, the head of The Syndicate, a criminal organisation that watches over “kidnappers in Cornwall, burglars in Berkshire, and every estate agent in England".

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And then there’s Connor Swindells from Sex Education doing his best Rik Mayall “Lord Flashheart" impression as the musical-comedy version of the highwayman hero, Tommy Silversides.

Turpin, while defiantly good and peace-loving, isn’t entirely noble. I’m reminded of the Blackadder season 3 episode ‘Amy And Amiability’ where the characters are discussing highwaymen. “What a man," marvels Baldrick. “They say he’s halfway to being the new Robin Hood." “Why only halfway?", asks Blackadder. “Well, he steals from the rich," explains Baldrick, “but he hasn’t got around to giving it to the poor yet."

Created by Claire Downes, Ian Jarvis and Stuart Lane, The Completely Made-Up Adventures Of Dick Turpin is immediately entertaining and bingeable, as well as almost entirely unmemorable. That seems about right. As German philosopher George Hegel said, “The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history." Yet I’d recommend this show for its preposterous and unlikely and spry leading man, a 50-year-old Goth who is gentle, charming and in on the joke. As one would say about a particularly tense cricket match, Fielding makes all the difference.

Raja Sen is a screenwriter and critic. He has co-written Chup, a film about killing critics, and is now creating an absurd comedy series. He posts @rajasen.

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