Television Comedy Reviews

Television Comedy Reviews by Joshua Gaskell

Porridge (Sitcom Season: BBC One Revivals)

By Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais
BBC Comedy Production for BBC 1
Sunday, 28th August 2016

Nigel Norman Fletcher (Kevin Bishop), grandson of Norman Stanley Fletcher, is doing porridge in Wakeley Prison for cyber crime. As he explains in the dock: ‘I admit to being a hacker, but I wore that black hat proudly. Mine was a victimless crime. Unless you regard the corporate world as victims.’ Like his grandfather, he’s a sympathetic criminal, as is his cellmate Joe (Dave Hill), an aged and unsuccessful heister of the Hatton Garden type. Joe knew Fletch Snr. in HMP Slade, but – a nice touch this – didn’t know him well enough to remember the name of his cellmate, Godber.

Fletch keeps himself sane by winning little victories against the system. That is, against Officers Braithwaite (Dominic Coleman) and Meekie (Mark Bonnar) (both very well cast), who represent a continuation of the Barrowclough–MacKay partnership; that is, a ‘good cop’ and a ‘bad cop’ whose lack of joined-up thinking means that they’re always got the better of by their ward:

MEEKIE: I will bring you down if I ever catch you up to something larcenous.
FLETCH: Then I won’t, Mr Meekie.
MEEKIE: Won’t what?
FLETCH: Let you catch me.

This is a joke that Clement and La Frenais have pinched from their own younger selves. It’s not the only one, but old jokes are sprinkled sparingly enough to remind us of the brilliant original without making the revival seem lacking in new comic ideas.*

Fletch‘A nice B & B in Penrith, with the three garden gnomes. Or was it two?’

The episode isn’t perfect of course: the title sequence is a homage to the original but, perhaps because the programme makers knew it would only be used once, does not manage to capture any of its cinematic or poetic qualities; the plot, involving Fletch using his computing expertise to hack into the prison’s system, is unlikely to be referenced for its structure in any encyclopaedias of semiotics; and some of the unreconstructed prison slang – ‘naff off’, ‘bog paper’ – requires a suspension of disbelief.

However, the programme’s success doesn’t lie in these things. It lies in the dexterous way – through the writing and through Bishop’s performance – in which young Fletch resembles, references, and nods affectionately to Ronnie Barker’s Fletch: the sarcastic way he flexes his eyebrows; the cocky way he over-enunciates when talking to officialdom; the way he amuses himself by pretending not to know where he is (‘Fried bread or porridge?’ ‘I was thinking more yoghurt, organic blueberries, sugar-free granola…’); even the way he stands with his hands in his pockets and stockily fills his prison-issue T-shirt.

Young Fletch is also the same kind of organism, within the prison ecosystem, as his grandfather was: he has the respect of the other prisoners, partly because he’s clever – Joe tells him, ‘You should be working in Silly Cone Valley’ – and he’s ‘normal’:

I don’t smoke snout. I don’t smoke wacky baccy. I don’t do drugs or steroids. And I don’t want sexual favours off a six-foot cross-dresser called Dave.

And, finally, he has that wide boy verbal felicity, as when Officer Braithwaite asks for help with his frozen laptop:

FLETCH: The first diagnostic procedure to recover from an unresponsive state is to power-cycle the device to clear the low-level software error, reinitialise its configuration parameters, and restore it to a steady condition. Do you know how you do that?
BRAITHWAITE: Turn it off and turn it back on again.

The rhythm of this sort of comedy sounds quite old-fashioned. But Yes, Minister cadences – of which we were reminded last week, through clips played after the death of Antony Jay – are still pleasing to the ear (and funny) when delivered well.

And, on the whole, this one-off helping of Porridge is delivered quite well. Fans of the original – to employ a Fletcherism – need not to be too dischuffed.

* My favourite of these involves Meekie, sceptical about Fletch’s sudden interest in yoga, testing the prisoner’s sincerity by asking him to perform ‘downward dog’.
† Having said that, I suppose naffing and naff off were always broadcastable euphemisms. And if viewers want unfunny realism instead, they can watch Life Inside Wandsworth Prison (13th August 2016, BBC News Channel).

Toast of London, S02E01

By Matt Berry and Arthur Mathews
Objective Productions for Channel 4
Monday, 3rd November 2014

This new series begins with Toast (Matt Berry) at Scramble studios, Soho, where he’s recording a version of the London Underground’s ‘Mind the gap’ announcement. Alongside producers Clem Fandango (Shazad Latif) and Danny Bear (Tim Downie) is ‘Boris Johnson’, who vexes Toast by asking him to say the famously brief phrase with ‘quite a long gap between the words the and gap.’* In the next scene Toast is at home and asks his thespy friend Ed (Robert Bathurst) what his ‘porn name’ is. Ed immediately replies that it’s ‘Posh Dong Minge-Muncher’, but then admits that he’s never heard that to arrive at one’s porn name, ‘you combine the name of your first pet with your mother’s maiden name.’ How nice to be back in the world of Toast of London, where it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between the surreal elements and those that only appear super-real because Theatreland in fact is.

In the first category (I think) is Ed’s annual ‘Celebrity and Prostitutes Blow Football Tournament’, in which Toast agrees to take part: ‘Blow football with prostitutes? This sounds right up my rue.’ His nemesis – in blow football as in life – is fellow actor Ray Purchase (Harry Peacock), who looks like a colonial-era military man, except for the white turtleneck and werewolf hair.§ Toast’s first choice of prostitute blow football partner is Mrs Purchase (Tracy-Ann Oberman). She’s already agreed to partner Ray, but Toast raises the ante by having sex with her while Ray is passed out next to them in the bed. (He’s hungover, having had a skinful with the anti-gays after a lecture about ‘rampant bum banditry’.) Toast and Mrs P’s slomo dog-style sex is hilarious, with the cross-eyed Toast oddly cartoonish and resembling a dwarf from the new Hobbit film.

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However, he has some humiliation of his own to stomach: a part as Charles Dickens that his agent has secured turns out to be a tour guide job aboard an open-top Routemaster for ‘What the Dickens Tours’. For no congruous reason the tour is conducted in what is evidently suburban London, so we get to see Toast out of his Soho comfort zone. Speaking through a megaphone for the benefit of his one passenger, he misidentifies a Belisha beacon as a lamp post, gestures off-camera at what apparently ‘looks like an abattoir’, and confidently asserts that ‘London was built in the thirteenth century, mostly made of straw, then a Great Fire came and knackered the lot.’ Toast’s mood is lightened, however, when he bumps into Purchase – aboard a rival bus, working for ‘Beefeater Anti-Gay Tours’ – and is able to slander loudly Mrs Purchase’s scruples (‘your wife’s a prostitute’).

Later, at the Colonial Club, the tournament is about to begin. Purchase is so confident of victory that he agrees, in the event of his losing, to do whatever Toast asks of him, ‘however disgusting or degrading’. The tournament final, when it comes, is a close-fought thing: Team Purchase wins 10–9, but is then disqualified on the grounds that Mrs Purchase is in fact ‘not strictly a prostitute’, thus handing the victory to Toast and his partner Wendy Nook (Louise Jameson). The episode ends with the forfeit of Toast’s choosing: a third and final bout of lovemaking and pleasure between him and Mrs P.** It’s much like the first, except that this time, instead of being unconscious, Purchase is tied to a chair with his eyes held open by a pair of specula oculi.

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* ‘The brevity of the phrase is said to derive from the limitations of solid-state digital recording technology when it was first introduced in the late 1960s’ (Brewer’s Dictionary of London Phrase & Fable).
† Jimbob Cain, in case you’re wondering.
‡ The Toast type in this milieu is quite hard to pin down. He works in showbiz but tells his agent he’s never heard of Gary Barlow or Russell Brand. I think of him as a former Groucho rakehell, who swung from candelabra with YBAs in the ’90s, but never quite had the talent and is now looked upon as an also-ran.
§ The two of them greet each other like Seinfeld and Newman, by simply saying the other’s name through gritted teeth.
‖ The lecture’s thesis is similar to Keith Chegwin’s in Extras: ‘Men have knobs, women have fannies: pop knob in fanny.’
¶ The director must have been pleased with the effect too, because a few minutes later they’re at it again on a bed in Springleys, a soft furnishings shop in the Fulham Road. (This is the opposite of ‘then I got off the bus’ humour: instead of panning out to reveal the inappropriateness of the sex, the viewer knows from the off that we’re in a public place, and the joke is that the other customers pay the lovers no attention at all – almost as if Toast and his world don’t really exist.)
☞ The setting is identifiable as Cleveland Road, W13. The bus travels east past Cleveland Park.
** See ‘House Of Fools, S01E04’ (note §) for a comment on Berry’s pronunciation of pleasure.

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