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I don't wish to take anything away from such excellent British sitcoms as "Keeping Up Appearances," "Waiting for God," and "Are You Being Served?", which appear on PBS in the States. But those shows run and run and run AND RUN, whereas "Joking Apart" was shown only once (in my area at least) then vanished without a trace. With every PBS catalog that drops through my mail slot, I search desperately through the "British TV" section, but no luck. I even searched through some British video stores when I was in London on vacation. PLEASE, PBS: if you can't offer videos or DVDs of this wonderful, quirky series, at least broadcast it again so that those of us with VCRs can at least have it to savor over and over again.
Robert Bathurst plays Mark Taylor, a likeable sad sack of a stand-up comic whose brief, bittersweet marriage to Becky Johnson (Fiona Gillies) still provides most of the material for his nightclub act. Rounding out the regular characters are Mark and Becky's best friends Tracy and Robert (Tracie Bennett, Paul Raffield) and Becky's new boyfriend Trevor (Paul Mark Elliott).
Every episode of the series (at least every one I saw) follows the same format: We open with Mark at work on a stage about the size of a card table in some tiny club, squinting in the glare of the lights, with a bare brick wall behind him. As he talks about "relationships" -- which means, of course, that he's really talking about one relationship in particular -- we can't help noticing that he's not very good at his chosen profession. Not bad, mind you -- not especially bitter or unpleasant, not ugly or vengeful. We sense that the unseen audience actually rather likes him and wants to laugh. It's just that he isn't very funny.
From this set-up, the show flashes back to scenes illustrating the points he's making, then we'll be back in the club, then back in Mark's former life. The flashbacks jumble chronology; we might get a scene from the tense final days of the marriage, followed by a scene of Mark trying to cope while Becky tries to move on with Trevor, then yet another scene from early in Mark and Becky's courtship. The show is always jumping around like that, yet it always works to shed light on the central theme of the episode. Credit Steven Moffatt for some truly fine writing, not only in structuring the episodes in a complex and surprising way, but in building laughs patiently to a crescendo. Not to mention how much comic gold he mined out of only five basic characters.
The beautiful irony of the show is that, invariably, Mark's life is so much funnier than his act. From the second episode on, every one, for me, would run the same course: I'd start out thinking, okay, now that I know how this show works, this is going to be more of the same tricks; it'll be old hat to me this time. And every time, without exception, I would wind up laughing till I cried -- in both senses of the phrase.
This is a wonderful, hilarious, perceptive, creative show. No doubt its scarcity is because there are only 13 episodes to show. I suspect the format would have been difficult to sustain over a years-long run, but that only shows the taste and intelligence of the producers in quitting while they were ahead.
I'd give anything to see this show again, to say nothing of having it on VHS or DVD. Can't SOMEBODY bring it back???
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