Why Cabin Pressure’s John Finnemore is the funniest man on the radio

John Finnemore on the beach in Whitstable
'I thought I was going to be a vet': comedian and writer John Finnemore - Rii Schroer for The Daily Telegraph

“Tolstoy was wrong,” says John Finnemore. “That thing about unhappy families all being different and happy families being the same? It’s just not true. There are loads of different ways for people to be happy together. You see people in family relationships, romantic relationships or friendships and you think: well, what you’ve got going on would not work for me, but it really works for the two of you.”

Fans of Finnemore’s award-winning Radio 4 comedies won’t be surprised to hear him speaking up for the diversity of happiness. In both his exquisitely plotted sitcom, Cabin Pressure, and his sillier sketch show, John Finnemore’s Souvenir Programme, the Reading-born, Dorset-raised comic repeatedly makes a carefully reasoned case for tolerance.

Cabin Pressure – set inside a struggling private airline – threw together a cast of characters differing in intelligence, morality and temperament, and gradually turned them into a loving family. Souvenir Programme – returning for its annual special this week – repeatedly pulls holes in the absurd false binaries we use to divide us: do we really need to be “dog or cat” people? Can’t we all just be mammal fans, rubbing along instead of creating more divisive pressures? There’s politics in there, if you care to look.

When we meet via video link, Finnemore, speaking from his home in Whitstable on the Kent coast, admits that it’d be difficult to write such good-hearted, reasonable comedy without “becoming twee, getting so warm and comfy that it’s bland, and I don’t know how to guard against that beyond being aware of it”. Much of the comedy he admires is darker and he tries to put some tension and conflict in his own work to ensure there is enough “vinegar in the sponge cake”.

Cabin Pressure's John Finnemore, Roger Allam, Stephanie Cole and Benedict Cumberbatch
Cabin Pressure's John Finnemore, Roger Allam, Stephanie Cole and Benedict Cumberbatch - BBC

I think this is his genius. His work isn’t without friction. It’s just friction in reassuringly safe hands. My kids – now 12 and 14 – grew up listening to Cabin Pressure: first on car journeys and then repeatedly for familiarity at bedtimes. Each episode is a cleverly constructed puzzle. Roger Allam plays a smooth-talking pilot, while Benedict Cumberbatch (on the cusp of mega fame) is his nervy underling. The airline’s fierce boss is played with gusto by Stephanie Cole, alongside Finnemore as her soft-headed, soft-hearted son, Arthur.

In an age where the words “Radio 4 comedy” often have people reaching for the off-switch, Finnemore and Cabin Pressure stand out. Telegraph radio critic Gillian Reynolds called the show “one of the best written, cast, acted and directed comedies on anywhere”, while the live recording of the final episode saw a record number of ticket requests for a radio comedy – 22,854 for just 200 seats.

“People often tell me that they listen to Cabin Pressure to go to sleep and they’re worried I’ll be offended,” says Finnemore. “But I think it’s lovely.” When he was a child, he felt the same way about Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. “When I hear the theme to Hitchhiker’s,” he says, “I feel the same way many of my peers feel when they hear the Doctor Who theme tune. Immediately I feel that tingle of excitement. I’m in the back seat of my parents’ car with my Walkman about to listen to Hitchhiker’s for the 800th time.”

Finnemore says that when he was growing up “comedy was to me what music was to other kids”. He learned sketches by heart. First the shows his parents loved and then ones found on his own. “On the Hour was the first show I remember hearing and thinking: this hasn’t been done before. So comedy was the big love, but I thought I was going to be a vet.”

The cast of Radio 4's John Finnemore's Souvenir Programme
John Finnemore's Souvenir Programme has become a stalwart of Radio 4 sketch comedy - BBC/Steve Ullathorne

Instead he read English at Cambridge and joined the Footlights, which feels like a fast-track to a comedy career. But he says that “while in the old days the TV commissioners, who were all Oxbridge graduates, came to Footlights shows and handed out jobs”, by the time he arrived “nobody rolled up to your Edinburgh show in a Rolls-Royce and offered you a sitcom or an assignment with MI5”.

Notoriously private, Finnemore says he “was never a stand-up. I don’t talk about my personal life. I’m a sketch comic. But we’re all in our own heads so of course, on some level, my sketches are personal. I can write an angry, didactic sketch with a point to make. Then a silly wordy one and then a talking animal one.”

Finnemore came up through radio. He started out writing for topical Radio 4 show Dead Ringers, then That Mitchell and Webb Sound (for fellow Footlights alumni David and Robert). (Less well known is his TV work, but he acted in the sitcom Miranda and has written episodes of Good Omens, Avenue 5 and Back.) He was also a regular on The Now Show, which recently finished after 26 years. “I’m sad it’s ended,” says Finnemore. “I did some of the work I’m most proud of on that show. I did some stand-up sections about how News International hacked the phone of Milly Dowler and the destructive ‘reforms’ of legal aid by Chris Grayling that I think are among the best work I have ever done.” Both sections are uncharacteristically confrontational for Finnemore. But, in both cases – where news reporting had become clogged by complexity – he made crisp, good sense of basic humanity.

This same ability to see through foggy words saw cryptic crossword-setting Finnemore (he’s “Emu”) win £1,000 solving Cain’s Jawbone, the fiendish literary puzzle set in 1934 by the inventor of the cryptic crossword, Edward Powys Mathers, who was known as Torquemada. “Basically,” explains Finnemore, “it’s a 100-page novel where the pages are printed in a random order and you have to work out the correct order then deduce from a series of cryptic allusions the solutions to six murders. In the 1930s two people won £25 for solving it. Then it was republished in 2019 with a new prize. I took one look and thought it was too hard. But then Covid shut the world down and so it became my lockdown project.”

John Finnemore on the beach in Whitstable
'I was never a stand-up - I don't talk about my personal life': John Finnemore in Whitstable - Rii Schroer for The Daily Telegraph

Finnemore explains that an American TikToker made the puzzle so popular in the US there has been demand for a similar challenge and so he has written one, The Researcher’s First Murder, due out in August. (As an exclusive advance clue for Telegraph readers, Finnemore offers this: Choose a drink – John Smith’s for me, for instance (8).)

Neatly on brand, Finnemore claims to have “no grand ambition” for the future. He’s writing a film with Armando Iannucci, a comedy thriller called In Too Deep which is inspired by Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. He’s also appearing in a comedy film, Promenade, alongside Allam and Doon Mackichan.

None of this will distract Finnemore from his commitment to radio comedy, which he thinks is “in great health”. He believes that “podcasts have made audio cool again”. Although this statement triggers the inner voice of pedantry that Souvenir Programme listeners will know well. “Oh, not cool,” he winces. “It doesn’t need to be ‘cool’. I hate the word ‘cool’.”

What he means is that audio has become part of the culture again. And when it comes to British radio comedy culture, there’s few more important parts than Finnemore.

The 2024 special of John Finnemore’s Souvenir Programme is on Radio 4 on Monday at 2.15pm; The Researcher’s First Murder is out in August via Unbound