ITV1’s new comedy hour – about 50 minutes too long
I’ve finally caught up with the new comedy hour that ITV1 has been trailering to death for the last couple of months. Their Monday night schedule now boasts Vicious, a sitcom about a pair of ageing queens played by Sirs Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi, followed by a second new sitcom, The Job Lot, starring Russell Tovey.
The dreary static set of Vicious is reminiscent of 70s sitcoms and the two lead characters are as camp as Mr Humphries in Are You Being Served? That series was lambasted for the stereotypical way it portrayed its only gay character, whilst never actually acknowledging that he was, in fact, homosexual. The message was this: it’s OK to laugh at the funny little man’s behaviour, but just don’t ask what he gets up to at night.
Vicious is bold enough at least to make it explicitly clear within the first couple of minutes that Freddie and Stuart are a gay couple. But that’s about as forward-thinking as it gets and, like Are You Being Served?, the show has been criticised for its stereotypical portrayal of gay characters.
Personally, I have no problem with Freddie and Stuart being so camp. Lots of gay men are camp; lots aren’t. Mincey old theatrical types like them exist in the real world, but whereas the ones I’ve met could effortlessly fill a half-hour with snappy bons mots and a sprinkling of caustic bitchery, the script here struggles to deliver anything memorable at all.
A constant stream of uninspired put-downs does not a fine comedy make. You try it and see who’s left laughing after 30 minutes.
As Morrissey one said: “It’s so easy to laugh, it’s so easy to hate, it takes guts to be gentle and kind”. There is an absolute void of warmth which makes these characters impossible to like. They are, for example, wilfully flippant about the death of an old friend – with zero comedy impact.
And what’s with the disco theme tune and cheap and nasty incidental music? What on earth have these characters got to do with disco? Oh I see… disco is (apparently) ‘gay’ music, so as the characters here are gay, it must therefore be appropriate(!). I despair…
What I can’t fathom is this: with the wealth of acting experience involved, how come no-one realised at any point that this is the worst thing they have ever done. Sir Ian McKellen has done it all: Shakespeare, Hollywood blockbusters, Coronation Street – and now a third-rate sitcom he’d probably rather forget.
The fantastic Frances de la Tour is the only actor who comes out of it unscathed, but even she has a tricky joke about rape to deliver. A script needs to be watertight for something like that to work; here it smacks of a transparent attempt to shock.
At least Gimme Gimme Gimme had proper jokes.
In a strange twist, the star of the following sitcom The Job Lot is Russell Tovey, who is also gay, but more your straight-guy-next-door type. In it, he plays a straight man.
The Job Lot provides an opportunity to laugh at people who are unemployed plus the people who are employed, on a poor salary, to try to help this vulnerable section of society.
It’s a questionable premise for a sitcom in the current economic climate. But when it comes down to it, any premise can be made to work if the script and characters are good enough – and more importantly, if it’s funny.
Unfortunately, The Job Lot isn’t terribly funny, though it is at least a marginal improvement on its predecessor.
The main character is similar to Tim in The Office, but a two-dimensional version rather than the beautifully realised character that Martin Freeman created.
In the first episode he writes the word “bum” in permanent marker on a whiteboard. This is the awkward ‘situation’ from which the ‘comedy’ should have unravelled. Now I’m not above a good ‘bum’ joke [ask anyone] but when it’s the best bit of the whole show, alarm bells should start ringing.
I get increasingly frustrated by the current state of the British sitcom, especially when, in cases like Vicious and The Job Lot, there is so much talent involved.
Another case in point is Sue Perkins’ recent effort, Heading Out. Sue is a brilliant comic and is naturally very witty. But it seems that when her show got commissioned she, like so many others, went into ‘formulaic sitcom’ mode and churned out a tired, predictable script with rehashed plotlines, stock characters that are entirely unconvincing, and precious little to laugh about.
What is this obsession with writing bloody awful sitcoms? There are many examples of good ones – ones that are innovative or touchingly realistic or intoxicatingly surreal – or just plain funny. So why do so many writers seem intent on re-creating Fresh bloody Fields!
And don’t get me started on BBC3 – it’s a breeding ground for them.
[Deep breath] Rant over.
Now – where’s that Plebs DVD…