Television Comedy Reviews

Television Comedy Reviews by Joshua Gaskell

The Windsors Christmas Special

By Bert Tyler-Moore and George Jeffrie
Noho Film & Television for Channel 4
Friday, 23rd December 2016

‘[I]t was a referendum and we must respect the public’s decision.’

This isn’t the EU referendum, but the one that closed the first series of The Windsors, when the public voted for Prince William (Hugh Skinner) to replace Charles (Harry Enfield) as first in line to the throne. This is the backdrop to what Harry (Richard Goulding) refers to as Christmas ‘with the rellies’. The setting is the royal family’s preferred Yuletide residence, Sandringham.*

The royals beetle off to Sandringham in twos and threes. None has a line that isn’t intended to exhibit the defining characteristics familiar to viewers of Series One (and, in several cases, earlier depictions): Charles is a pompous bore (‘It was Gordonstoun that fucked him up’), Edward, a.k.a. Rock-steady Eddie, (Matthew Cottle) is a failure (‘I’m Santa at Debenhams, King’s Lynn), Princess Anne (Vicki Pepperdine) is austerity personified, Prince Andrew (Tim Wallers) loves practical jokes at the expense of his dim wife, Fergie (Katy Wix), and their children, Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie (Ellie White and Celeste Dring), are Internet-enabled Sloanes.

Over the course of this one-hour special, Fergie moves from the stable block to the house, Harry invites some homeless people around to impress a girl, Catherine (Louise Ford) talks Anne out of lobotomising her and cooks a traditional Christmas dinner of ‘pike schnitzel mit crispy spätzle’, and the Ghost of George III-cum-Christmas Yet to Come (Paul Whitehouse) convinces William to ignore the result of the referendum and make Charles first in line again.

However, as the drama nears its close, Charles uses his newly regained authority to declare war with the EU. A nuclear strike is only averted when Catherine guesses the password of the EU’s automatic defence system – ‘farageisawanker’ – allowing the royals to negotiate with a robot called Gargantuan (which speaks English in a German accent):

WILLIAM: No! Only the prime minister can declare war. It was just Dad!
GARGANTUAN: No, the head of state declares war, and Prince Charles is your acting head of state.
WILLIAM: Look, the title is ‘head of state’, but monarch is just a ceremonial position.
GARGANTUAN: Does not compute. What would be the point?
WILLIAM: I don’t know. We’re just a weird hangover from the past, like the Channel Islands or televised snooker. […]
GARGANTUAN: But the monarch has to ratify all your legislation.
CAMILLA: It’s just a rubber stamp. The royal veto hasn’t been used since the 1700s.
GARGANTUAN: Interesting, but I need to hear this from Prince Charles.
WILLIAM: Father, sit there and tell them we are completely irrelevant. It’s the only way to stop a nuclear war!
CHARLES: But I’m the Evening Standard ‘Londoner of the Decade’.
WILLIAM: Do it! […]
CHARLES: All right. I’m utterly irrelevant. […]
GARGANTUAN: Three… Two… One… Launch protocols… Halted! […]
CHARLES: I did it! I saved the day again!

To my mind, this exchange is more Eurosceptic than Europhile and more monarchist than republican. In any case, The Windsors isn’t satire, because it is devoid of moral outrage. But nor is it trying to be satire – Channel 4’s description of it as a ‘comedy soap opera’ is right. Even an ostensibly satirical line, like the one spoken by a pleb to William at Sandringham’s gate – ‘You’re so normal, despite being inherently better than us’ – is actually quite a good distillation of the sort of paradoxical thinking that keeps the monarchy with us. As with the Royal Family in Spitting Image, these characters are essentially likeable, despite the rude jokes made at their expense. In fact, there’s probably an inverse relationship, in depictions of royalty, between number of rude personal jokes and genuinely subversive intent. In The Windsors, many of the rudest jokes are about the future king. Harry Enfield plays Charles – a part he didn’t get to do in Spitting Image – with relish:

Charles

This Christmas special, which is just as good as the first series, will be most enjoyed by those who quite like the royals but aren’t deferential enough to mind them being compared (clockwise from top left) to Gollum, Nazis, Big Brother housemates, and, er, that one.

* William pronounces it /ˈsɑːndrɪŋəm/, which in reality must join plɑːstic and Glɑːstonbury in the box marked ‘try-hard’.
† Princess Anne was once unkindly described as a ‘A Sloane sans charm’. Here, Pepperdine (apparently wearing her false teeth from Up the Women) plays her as frosty, dour, and repressed.

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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).

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