I felt the urge to talk about British television comedy for a bit after seeing a trio of shows: The Thick of It, Hyperdrive and Tittybangbang. The Thick of It is extremely sharp political satire, first shown on BBC 4 and now making it to BBC 2, masterminded by Armando Iannucci, a man who was part of The Day Today and Alan Partridge. Shot in documentary style, it looks behind the scenes of a junior minister and the government spin doctor who really runs things. It is quite brilliant and hilarious. Hyperdrive is a sci-fi comedy on BBC 2, starring Nick Frost (Mike from Spaced) and Kevin Eldon. This show has the shadow of Red Dwarf looming ominously over it, and never manages to peak its head out. Although very modern looking, it feels influenced by The Office, and suffers from not being very funny, even if it’s nice to see Frost in a lead role.
Tittybangbang is a woeful sketch show on BBC 3 that has a female cast doing sub-Little Britain material. I watched the first show and didn’t laugh once. This is not a good sign. I’m not saying that Little Britain is the gold standard of sketch shows, as it isn’t (personally I feel that the quality has suffered due to the popularity of the show, and they have rushed characters out that aren’t as funny and rely solely on ‘shocking’ the safe audience of BBC1. Series 1 was based on the radio version of the show, with the characters and gags tested out before making the transition to television, thereby bringing fully formed and funny sketches straight to screen.) but, at the very least, a sketch show should make you laugh. The only salvation is the form of Lucy Montgomery, who seems to be a very good comedy character actor, even if the material is very weak.
These three shows got me thinking about the recent year of British television comedy, so here’s my run down of shows that tried to make me laugh last year.
Peep Show (Channel 4) had its third series last year, and it was a blistering return to the brilliance of series one, after a slight dip in the laugh quality of series two. Definitely one of the best comedies on television, as the quote accompanying the poster ads from Ricky Gervais attests. Like The Thick of It, it has a unique style (getting inside the minds of the characters) and a commitment to making people laugh. Very, very funny.
Nathan Barley (Channel 4) was a patchy affair that had moments of brilliance, interspersed with too much of the anguish comedy of The Office. A fantastic creation from Charlie Brooker, writer of hysterical television reviews in the Guardian’s Guide supplement, and co-written by the comedy genius that is Chris Morris, it poked fun at the trendy world of media types in the Hoxton area. The programme was filled with bits that realised the world perfectly, but the main thrust of the storylines left me (and apparently the audience, as dwindling viewing figures showed) cold and lacking in laughs.
The Robinsons was a gentle but enjoyable series on BBC 2, starring Martin Freeman as an everyman chap, called Ed Robinson, and his bizarre family. They weren’t ‘wacky’ or ‘zany’ but that very British eccentric oddness that this country seems to produce in quantity. Freeman is a good comedy actor, with the sort of face that elicits laughter and sympathy, and the series progressed nicely without being earth-shattering.
The big name sitcom of the year was BBC 2’s Extras, the first episode I reviewed here. Ricky Gervais and Stephen Marchant followed up The Office with a look at the life of the extra, with much of the same comedy of embarrassment, mixed with star names. The star names provided some highlights (Patrick Stewart wanting to do a project where he was able to telekinetically remove the clothes of women, Les Dennis able to mock his life, and Kate Winlset savaging her ‘nice’ image) and the laughs through your fingers were equally painful and funny. The series didn’t hit classic status due to the insular nature of the situation – while The Office was universal, Extras was too specific, stopping it from reaching across different levels.
Smoking Room was a BBC 3 comedy that, as the title suggests, is based entirely in the smoking room of an office-based company. The scope for situations were, therefore, extremely limited and the humour is all talk-based, but the laughs were present and the characters strong, particularly Robert Webb from Peep Show. Another low-key show was Sensitive Skin on BBC 2, which I include here only because I don’t know where to put it. Joanna Lumley and Denis Lawson are a couple in their late 50s, wondering what they’ve done with their lives, with Joanna having conversations with aspects of her conscience in the form of memory-inspired characters. Bridging comedy and drama, there was a quiet poetry to this programme, and I’m angry to have missed the last one. Another strong show was Absolute Power on BBC 2, set in the world of spin doctoring, with Stephen Fry. Boasting strong scripts from people in the know, and a good ensemble cast, this was a joy to watch and see them playing off well-known incidents and celebrities.
BBC didn’t have it all their way in the comedy stakes. They produced some rubbish. I won’t talk about My Family, as I have only seen five very poor minutes of this show-by-committee, a process that works in the USA but not here. However, there were others. From the same stable was According to Bex, starring Jessica Stevenson from Spaced, which I reviewed here. It was criminal to see her talents wasted on such dross. Ben Elton produced a new sitcom, Blessed, about a couple with a new baby. The man who co-brought us The Young Ones and Blackadder II (one of the greatest sitcoms ever) has matured into an unfunny old man, producing not so much a sitcom, rather an excuse for the lead male, Ardal Hanlon, to vent Elton’s stand-up bits, which sounds so forced and horrible in the dialogue of a sitcom. Worst Week of My Life was traditional British farce that was desperately unfunny. I couldn’t watch more than one episode of this predictable and pedestrian mainstream comedy without wincing and shaking my head in shame. So I stopped.
A disappointment was Catterick, the series from Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer making its debut on BBC 2 after debuting on BBC 3, which tried to infuse their funny weirdness into the sitcom format, in the form of a road trip. The characters were suitably bizarre and well-acted (from the likes of Reece Shearsmith and Matt Lucas) but it didn’t really work. It seemed stretched from a movie into a six-episode series, and didn’t have enough to hold the whole together. That said, it had one of the funniest images, when Matt Lucas’ character asked his wife to pull his finger, in imitation of the notorious joke, only for him to produce a stool instead, the shape of which we could see travel down the inside of his trousers. Other poor attempts, hardly worth mentioning, are BBC 3’s Ideal, with the irritating Johnny Vegas as a comedy drug dealer, and Channel 4’s A Bear’s Tail, a puerile spin-off from the improbably successful (even-though-it-hasn’t-been-funny-since-series-one) Bo’ Selecta, following the antics of the titular Bear character, dragging down Sean Pertwee, Patsy Kensit and Davina MacCall with them.
However, the award for worst sitcom goes to Meet the Magoons, from Channel 4. This was about Scottish Asians running a curry house in Glasgow and was below the level of a sixth-form revue. It was painful to watch. I couldn’t believe that this had got past the stage of a script review, as it was complete rubbish. How the channel that could bring us Peep Show and Green Wing could dump this turd on our screen is beyond me.
Spoons was a mostly successful sketch show on Channel 4, coming from the guiding hand of Charlie Brooker, about modern life for the twenty-something couple. Highlight characters included the man who found himself trapped in a relationship and tries to escape with the help of complete strangers, and the woman who replies to he boyfriends requests, ‘I. Want. A. Fucking. Baby.’ Some of the recurring sketches wore a little thin, but they mostly hit the mark, and tapped a rich vein of humour that particularly appealed to me. On a similar theme was BBC 3’s Manstrokewoman, a sketch show with a similar look at modern couples, and included Nick Frost in the troop of actors. Some of the recurring characters weren’t as strong, such as the woman who always tries bizarre new fashions, much to her boyfriends bemusement, and ends up by saying, ‘You couldn’t just say I looked nice.’ Both of these sketch shows were well shot and had a good ensemble cast, making you believe the skits.
A bit more slapdash was ITV’s Monkey Trousers, coming from the minds of Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, with a wealth of big name comedy talent, such as Steve Coogan. This was an attempt from ITV to get its name onto the comedy stage by throwing lots of money to get named comedy actors (including Alastair McGowan, Ronnie Ancona, Richard Wilson, David Walliams and Matt Lucas) to perform in a very mixed selection of bizarre sketches, definitely more miss than hit. The only worthwhile character was the creepy toy shop owner, played by Steve Coogan; even the bizarreness of Vic Reeves playing a police negotiator who talks gibberish (the only discernible words being ‘Monkey Trousers’) couldn’t help.
Talking of sketch shows cannot go without mentioning Little Britain, the current Chelsea FC of sketch shows. However, I don’t want to talk about it much because I don’t think it’s funny any more; despite the popularity (it was one of last year’s top ten watched programmes) and the catchphrase ubiquity in playgrounds throughout the nation, the show has not been even vaguely amusing in the third series, using shock and willing celebrity appearances to ride the wave of viewing figures. So I’ll move on.
Even less funny, although not as popular, is The Catherine Tate Show. Despite the staggering popularity of one character (the ‘Am I bovered?’ teenage girl), this show is torturous to watch. Tate is a great comedy character performer, inhabiting all her grating characters fully, but forgetting that the point is to make people laugh, rather than show off how good she is at creating new people. Although I admit that the swearing granny can raise a smile, it quickly lost repeat value, and nothing can make up for the agonisingly awful laughing couple who find the inane anecdotes they tell each other impossibly funny – if I saw those people in real life, I would strangle them. I cannot fathom how this show is allowed to continue, let alone get a second series.
Try as I might, I cannot possibly see everything. I completely missed out Help on BBC 2, with Chris Langham playing a psychotherapist to the many characters of the excellent Paul Whitehouse. I didn’t watch any more Keith Barrett Show, as I found the first one to be a sub-Alan Partridge affair with celebrities, and a rather lame vehicle for Rob Brydon’s talents. I couldn’t be bothered to keep up with BBC 3’s The Mighty Boosh and its student antics. Despite liking Brydon, I didn’t laugh at Supernova in the 15 minutes I saw on BBC 2, so didn’t come back for seconds. Carrie and Barry wasn’t on my radar, as Neil Morrissey is not funny to watch as a main character. I saw some of the Channel 5 sketch show, Singles, which was quite funny, but never saw anything after that to comment fairly on it. If there is anything I have missed, I apologise for not being diligent enough in my efforts and hope you can forgive me.
The final question, therefore, is the much-asked, ‘Is the sitcom dead?’ I think not, although you might not think so from my review. British television can still bring out some brilliant comedy, even when producing dross, and it also comes down to taste; why is Little Britain so popular again? There is a new series of Green Wing coming our way, which will bring the laughs in abundance if the first series is any indication. Robert Webb and David Mitchell, the stars of Peep Show, will be bringing their radio sketch show, The Mitchell & Webb Experience, to BBC 2 later this year, and BBC Radios 2 and 4 are constantly trying out new comedians and ideas. And we have The IT Crowd, the new sitcom from Graham Linehan, one of the men behind Father Ted and Black Books, which looks like it will be one to watch. And there is always some excellent comedy from the USA to take up the slack: Scrubs is a continual hilarious delight, and Arrested Development was very enjoyable, despite the lack of commitment from BBC 2 in keeping it to a regular schedule, and My Name Is Earl is shaping up to be very enjoyable (I have yet to see Curb Your Enthusiasm, much to my chagrin, but it should be included here.) The future isn’t as bleak as some nay-sayers would have you believe. And I always have my personal three favourite sitcoms on DVD to watch: Spaced, Blackadder and The Young Ones.