By Matthew Kresal
Alternate history is, while speculative, more often than not serious in tone. Whether in factual speculations or works of fiction, the goal is to ask how the past could have been rather than point out how outrageous a scenario might be. Indeed, that's often a point left up to reviewers. That fact makes it all the more interesting when alternate history creators go in for comedy or satire. Sea Lion Press, whose blog you're reading, has an anthology of such stories in Comedy Through the P(ages), for example. There's also a rather unusual edition of BBC Radio 4's Archive on 4 series from 2019 called Gareth Gwynn's Alternative Archive.
The reason this Alternative Archive is unusual is because of what Archive on 4 often presents. Often with a host narrating, the series draws on a mix of material from the century-old BBC archive (hence the series title), often adding in source music or new interviews to compliment them. Very British Dystopias (aired in 2013 and reviewed by the current author for this blog last year) is an example of the type of documentary program the series airs. The series doing an alternate history-filled take, especially for comedic purposes, is unusual.
But the results are intriguing and, as they ought to be, funny. Opening with an explanation of the "many worlds theory" from physicist Darren Price and setting up the conceit that the clips listeners will soon hear have come via a BBC monitoring station (or something, since, perhaps in keeping with the program theme, the nature of things changes throughout the hour), comedian and satirist Gareth Gwynn take listeners on his journey. One that takes in a world where the Soviets won the space race, leading to technological advancements that sped up climate change, flooding England and making the Shipping Forecast the BBC's most popular program. Or how Neil Kinnock becoming prime minister in 1992 caused a referendum on Europe more than two decades sooner than 2016’s, leading to Nigel Farage becoming a noted cricket commentator when the vote happens to be to remain. Not to mention Doctor Who had its first female Doctor in 1994 or where Delia Smith is the Pope, giving Radio 4's Thought for the Day. Gwynn's various segments offer the aural equivalent of prose vignettes, snippets of timelines often only a few minutes in length, or even a single clip in some cases. Nor does Gynnn keep himself from being the subject of laughs, in one universe swapping places with Jonathan Ross to leave a scandal-inducing message on Andrew Sachs's answering machine.
Alternative Archive also has fun meddling with the BBC archives. The Soviet lunar landing, for example, draws rather ironically on Radio 4's long-running factual alternate history series What If?, only it presents clips from that program as a documentary from another universe. Or re-purposing Eamonn Andrews's gate-crashing of Terry Wogan on BBC radio for This is Your Life in 1978, reworking it as a rivalry that led to an on-air kidnapping in that version of history. There's also a running gag involving various alternative Desert Island Disc appearances by Paul McCartney, including one where the BBC can't play music on-air, which the writer-performer completely ignores. Some of the edits are more subtle than others, but as an example of using real-life recording for alternate history, this stands as a fun example.
Gareth Gwynn's Alternative Archive may play its timelines and moments for laughs, but it makes a point, especially in its last timeline. A version of history that isn't too far away from our own at the time this first aired in 2019. We may well laugh at the versions of events portrayed over the course of the hour by Gwynn, but perhaps the only difference between reality and fiction is that we want fiction to make sense.
Alternative or otherwise.