‘Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, First Officer Douglas Richardson here. Just to let you know we’re making our final approach now into what I’m fairly sure is Fitton airfield. Unless it’s a farm. Or just possibly the A45…’ (series 1, episode 1 – Abu Dhabi)
Writer John Finnemore certainly has a knack for beginnings. Fortunately, he’s also fantastic at continuing a story, and for the purpose of this review, that story is the story of MJN Air – described by the BBC’s website for the programme as ‘an airline for whom no job is too small but many, many jobs are too difficult’. Oh, and did I mention that it’s a radio sitcom?
When you tune in to Cabin Pressure, it’s time to join the crew on one of their many flights to exotic (and less exotic) destinations all over the world – but the journey is almost always more rewarding than the arrival, mostly because you don’t tend to stick around for that bit. There are notable exceptions – the most recent episode, Uskerty, for example, takes place largely on the ground – but for the most part the show delivers what it promises in the form of a fly-on-the-wall listen to the goings-on of a small charter airdot.
G-ERTI, MJN’s only plane, is piloted by Captain Martin Crieff (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, except in one episode where Tom Goodman-Hill does a first-rate job standing in). Pirates of the Caribbean fans might think they are already aware of the commander most proud of his ‘Captain’ status and hat in all the world. Let me tell you, Pirates fans, you haven’t met Martin. But perhaps one of the reasons Martin’s so proud of his title is that he’s not sure he can really live up to it.
Douglas Richardson (Roger Allam), the company’s snarky, devious First Officer, isn’t so sure that Martin should be Captain either. Where Martin is a stickler for the rules, Douglas has a tendency to regard CAA protocols – as well as national laws and anything his boss, Carolyn, tells him – as quaint little curiosities far beneath the notice of the likes of himself. It is partly this attitude that lost him his Air England Captain’s epaulettes.
Speaking of losing things, Carolyn Knapp-Shappey (Stephanie Cole, OBE), owner of G-ERTI and CEO of MJN, is usually very close to losing her rag with the whole crew. She acquired the plane in divorce proceedings and for that reason she will cling to it no matter how much stress it adds to her life. And, of course, it makes the last member of the crew very, very happy.
Arthur Shappey (played by Finnemore himself), who works alongside his mother as cabin crew on passenger flights, tags along on cargo flights as well because he thinks it’s, well, brilliant. Arthur’s enthusiasm may far outweigh his expertise, but he’s nonetheless a vital part of the crew and everyone else at MJN is clearly, if begrudgingly, very fond of him.
If listening in on a flight to Gdansk doesn’t sound like your idea of fun, factor into your calculations the fact that these four very different, somewhat eccentric people – and sometimes even more eccentric passengers – are stuck in a small metal tube for hours at a time. Word games, crazy bets, and the intriguing but beautiful Passenger Derby ensue, along with the famous game of the Travelling Lemon and an ongoing quest for the silliest cabin address. Alongside the straight-up comedy, the characters are compelling and believable, and any member of the self-titled ‘fandot’ (also known as the Cabin Crew) will tell you that by the end of a couple of episodes at most, you will be heavily emotionally invested in the characters’ struggles.
Series four is airing as I type – well, not as I type, I’d be laughing too hard to spell anything properly, but we’re getting towards the middle of the series now – and as we’ve already had Birling Day this time around, new listeners should be able to keep up even if they haven’t heard series 1-3 and the Christmas Special. However, there are a few running gags that will definitely enrich your experience of the flight, so it’s worth getting hold of the previous nineteen episodes if you’re prepared to work through them on the way to series four. I assure you, it’s not a chore. It’s also surprisingly educational – can you imagine 100 otters? Really imagine 100, not just a lot of otters? I can.
So, all in all, John Finnemore just might be a genius, and the rest of the cast are fantastic at, well, proving that. I’d recommend that anyone listen to this show – it’s upbeat enough to cheer me up no matter how rotten I feel, it’s family-friendly, and it’s only half an hour long so, if you’re not listening live, you should be able to fit a downloaded episode into your lunchbreak. A word of warning, however; many members of the fandot have attempted to listen to Cabin Pressure while out and about, on public transport, while pretending to be asleep in the middle of the night, or at work. This – however great an idea it may seem – is not advised, as people do tend to give you a rather strange looks when you’re crying with laughter at something nobody else can hear.
Crying with laughter. What more persuasion do you need? Come fly the friendly skies – I mean, ahem. Go and have a listen.
I’d give this show five out of five. I’m wary of giving fives, but I couldn’t think of a single reason to knock off even .25 of a point, so there it is.
Eleanor Musgrove (demands first crack at the cheese tray)
You can get Cabin Pressure on CD or for download at AudioGO. The episodes are also available on iTunes.