The classic British sitcom witless and toe-curlingly twee
WHEN dealing with tragedy and comedy, ancient Greek actors traditionally used masks, so that everyone in the audience would know exactly where they were.
Mouths curving downwards? Some hapless figure would soon be tearing his own eyes out and eviscerating his own giblets, shortly after slaughtering his father and his first born, and getting chased around the stage by three bloodsoaked bints with snakes for hair.
Mouths curving upwards? Prepare for an evening of biting hilarity, mordant satire, withering parody, and enormous phalluses. But if Greek masks were used to accompany the sad farrago that currently passes for entertainment on much British TV, the expressions would surely have to be inverted. Because the serious drama is getting to be laughable nowadays, while much of the comedy has become profoundly tragic.
For an example of sit-trag at its most startlingly inept, look no further than Friday night's debut of After You're Gone. Everything about it was appalling, from the outdated cosiness of its nuclear family set-up, to a cast who apparently thought they were appearing on stage at Harrogate rep in an early-Seventies farce, and who addressed each other not in proper joined-up dialogue, but in an endless series of witless one-liners.
Even the dire warning that it had been "devised by the creator of My Family" hadn't fully prepared me for the sheer toe-curling tweeness of it all, replete with so many weak puns, motherinlaw jokes, and cries of "oh come on mummy ... mummy mummy mummy" that I half- expected the l at e Patrick Cargill to suddenly walk on from the wings, convinced that this was a posthumous edition of Father Dear Father.
I know it's only mid-January, but this must already be the hot favourite for the title of Worst Comedy of 2007, although perhaps my judgment was slightly skewed by the growing realisation that there was something wrong with my chair. It was facing the television set.
Let us first consider the dramatis personae, who collectively formed as toxic a miscast as is ever likely to infest your screen. First among equals was Nicholas Lyndhurst in the role of handyman and estranged husband Jimmy who, despite his cries of "I'm one of the workers," turned in his usual limp, middle-class Gary Sparrow routine (although at least his character in Goodnight Sweetheart lived in the fourth dimension, whereas here he can barely manage one dimension).
Ryan Sampson (as Jimmy's son, Alex) did emerge with his dignity intact, but Celia Imrie's portrayal of Jimmy's mother-in-law Diana (sporting an apron, an item of clothing that's only ever worn in British domestic sitcoms, never in real life) was so recklessly far over the top that she could have been leading the infantry out of the trenches on the first morning of Passchendaele.
Not only was the age gap between the three generations implausibly narrow, but Imrie's poshly spoken yet fishwife-tongued character simply didn't chime true, and she ended up providing more low-grade ham than an entire chain of supermarkets in the run-up to Christmas.
The story lines were equally unbelievable, with daddy and mother- in-law vying for the affections of the teenage children, while mother Ann (Samantha Spiro) ran off with a new boyfriend to a disaster area in Africa (wisely leaving this disaster area behind her).
And although sparkling dialogue can sometimes rescue even the flimsiest of plots, there was no chance of that here, thanks to wretchedly contrived exchanges like "the Buddhists call it tit for tat", "but he gets the tit while I get the tat." The studio audience shrieked so delightedly at that line that I can only assume they were a coach party on day release from a mental asylum, and I was astounded to see from the closing credits that it had taken seven writers to produce this abysmal script.
How can that be? Perhaps they'd all worked together in one room, pacing the floor for inspiration, and some sort of mass concussion had ensued, because surely only a massive collective brain injury could explain a disaster of this calibre.
Or perhaps the finger should ultimately be pointed at executive producer Kenton Allen, a man who I've long regarded as the BBC Comedy's equivalent of I Claudius.
Having inherited The Royle Family in its prime, he was instantly raised shoulderhigh and mistakenly given credit for Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash ' s masterpiece, but where Claudius was smart enough to ride his good fortune and leave well alone, Allen seems dim enough to mistake his luck for talent, and has been tempted to meddle in productions ever since.
I'm told that he had a hands-on role in this one, and he's now provided us with one of the most excruciatingly vacant situation comedies in the BBC's history, after which the only decent thing for him to do would surely be to provide the BBC with a Situation Vacant. And in return, the Corporation should cancel all scheduled broadcasts now, seal the master tapes of the entire series in a lead- lined box, and bury it deep within Sellafield, without delay. Apart from that, it was fantastic.
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