Television Comedy Reviews

Television Comedy Reviews by Joshua Gaskell

Tag: Jack Whitehall

Fresh Meat, S03E04

By Tom Basden
Objective Productions and Lime Pictures for Channel 4
Monday, 25th November 2013 (advance 4oD premier)

This fourth episode of the new series of Manchester University-based Fresh Meat is written by Tom ‘Lord’ Basden (one quarter of the sketch act Cowards).* It contains three main subplots: Kingsley, Josie, and JP (Jack Whitehall) are taking part in a pharmaceutical drug trial during which JP hopes to get back in with Sam, and Kingsley to spill the beans to Josie about his overlapping relationship with Heather (now in Hong Kong); Oregon has written an autobiographical play, the production of which turns into a way for her and Vod to attack each other through fictionalised versions of themselves; and Howard goes to the library in search of Petrology of the Ultramafic and Gabbroic Rocks of the Brady Glacier Nickel-Copper Deposit, Fairweather Range, Southeastern Alaska by Glen R. Himmelberg and Robert A. Loney, but someone has already taken it out.

As is the case with all the best episodes of Fresh Meat, this one demonstrates the truth of the axiom that the devil has all the best tunes (i.e. JP has all the best lines). In the first scene he’s talking to the doctor whose job it is to screen him for the trial. ‘How do you feel in yourself?’ asks the doc. JP replies, ‘Does that mean the same as how do you feel?’ This is unusual, in that JP is the teller rather than the butt of the joke. But that doesn’t last long: ‘Actually,’ he says, ‘I am feeling a bit un…pumped. There’s this girl [Sam] who I, like, like.’

Unpumped he may be, but Basden gives JP a series of well-pumped lines. Talking to Kingsley about Heather’s absence, he refers unironically to ‘Honkers’, and then responds to Kingsley’s advice that ‘A check a day keeps testicular cancer at bay’, by asking sincerely, ‘Is that an official rhyme?’His privileged upbringing has instilled in him a proprietous faith in what is official. (This is why Ann Barr and Peter York’s tongue-in-cheek ‘Guide to What Really Matters’ is The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook.)

It’s at the trial that Basden’s feel for the character and Whitehall’s pitch-perfect performance really come into their own. JP approaches an assembled group (including Sam), with a pile of board games, and asks ‘Wanna start with Risk? It could be fun.’ Sam replies scathingly, ‘Or it could be really dull and take hours.’ ‘That’s why it’s called Risk,’ returns JP.§

RiskIt could be really dull and take hours. That’s why it’s called Risk.

The group were in the middle of listening to one of their number talk about her gap year, so they don’t play Risk; but that doesn’t mean they forego facsimiled imperialism, because JP joins in with his own ‘gap year ’dotes’. The first one goes down very well:

So, me and Max Parr went swimming in a waterfall in South Africa, and when we got back we found a leach in his arse, so he tried to get rid of it by sitting on a ferrule that we’d covered in salt […] and he accidentally pressed the button which opened the umbrella whilst it was in his arsehole.

However, the second story goes down, as JP afterwards laments, more like ‘spunk soup’:

So, we were on Max’s dad’s boat off the coast of Durban, and we were muchos masheoed. We’d taken like three bongs with us. Anyway, we were doing some scuba-diving in pairs. My partner was this proper fatty called Ed. He’s like this huge whale of a guy. Such a bell. And it was hilarious, right, because he was scuba-diving whilst we were getting our bong on. So the boat didn’t have its anchor down, so it drifted like two miles, and he couldn’t find us. He got sunstroke and shat himself and nearly died!

This boat ’dote is greeted by a tumbleweedy silence from all, and no amount of protest – ‘There are several boys at Stowe who refer to that story as el classico’ – can reverse the damage. Later that night, with the trial over, JP goes to Sam’s window to beg her forgiveness, but the presence in her room of a muscular rival gives him his answer, and he is reduced to calling out, pathetically, ‘You have my blessing!’ We feel sorry for JP and unsympathetic towards the other guy, even though JP is a posho and the object of the satire; and this is why I compared him above to the devil.

Blake famously said of Milton that he ‘was a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it’, neatly summarising Romanticism’s fascination with the rhetoric and poetry of Satan in Paradise Lost: even though theologically we can’t sympathise with or feel drawn towards Satan, the way Milton writes him forces us to do both. Similarly, the ‘theology’ of a youth-orientated, 2013 Channel 4 sitcom doesn’t allow us to like the public school toff whose name is an allusion to a bank, but the exuberance with which he is written forces us to do so.

Writing that is, in this sense, of the devil’s party, is at one with the times. Whitehall has been on the telly quite a lot this week. On Have I Got News for You he read out John Major’s debate-sparking quote:

In every single sphere of British influence, the upper echelons of power in 2013 are held overwhelmingly by the privately educated or the affluent middle class. To me from my background, I find that truly shocking.

‘To me, from my background,’ Whitehall said, ‘I find it hilarious.’ And on the first episode of Backchat, his father, Michael, tells him that he’s a ‘a good old-fashioned Tory’. Although in both cases an acceptable theology was maintained by means of qualification – respectively, ‘I don’t’ and ‘I’m not! Stop outing me as a Tory!’ – the jokes were nevertheless generously indulged.

Yeah, politics… But anyway, Fresh Meat is really good.

* Manchester is Whitehall’s own unalma mater (he studied History of Art there for two terms).
† He needn’t have worried, however, as it is (thankfully for the rest of us) available online here.
‡ Honkers: ‘A nickname for Hong Kong current among British expatriates from the 1920s’ (Brewer’s Dictionary of Modern Phrase & Fable), and ‘perh. subliminally influenced by honkers adjective [meaning drunk]’ (Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang).
§ Possibly an example of Basden writing, a fortiori, above JP’s own ability as a comic.
‖ ‘Max Parr and I’, shurley? as per Michael Whitehall’s correction in the Backchat trailer.

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Bad Education, S02E04

By Jack Whitehall and Freddy Syborn
Tiger Aspect Productions for BBC Three

Tuesday, 24th September 2013

‘Valentine’s Day’ begins with Alfie (Jack Whitehall) experiencing the double sorrow of receiving a card from his mummy which is actually a forgery by his daddy; that’s Martin Wickers (Harry Enfield), the embarrassing dad who’s so down with the kids that he’s heard of that well-known drink, the ‘Jäguarbomb.’

Martin is driving history teacher Alfie in to Abbey Grove (which, like Big School’s Greybridge is apparently somewhere in Hertfordshire), and ends up following him in, calling ‘Smoocher! You forgot your lunchbox! I popped an extra Yakult in there to help settle your tummy. He’s got the squits.’ Ugh! Daad! There in the corridor he meets Professor Green (Samantha Spiro) who has taken over as deputy head from Isobel Pickwell (Michelle ‘Sue White’ Gomez). The new character is immediately dubbed Pro Green, continuing Bad Education’s fun with the ever(pro)green joke of silly teachers’ names (previous highlights being Mrs Gay Phistor, Mr Mark Skid, Mr Dick Brumhole, and Mrs Pat Fanny). For anyone unsure of the joke Alfie explains: Pro Green is only ‘the best British rapper since Brian Harvey, or maybe J from Five.’ However, the significance of Pro Green plotwise is that she’s met Martin before, nudge, nudge (wink, wink). They did teacher training together, and unfortunately for Alfie it’s quickly apparent that Pro Green is just as humourless and even more of a bitch than Auntie Liz, the character Spiro plays in Grandma’s House.* So, along with Alfie’s false claim that Miss Gulliver (Sarah Solemani) has agreed to go round to his for a dinner date, we’ve got two classic Valentine’s set-ups – an old flame and a fictional girlfriend – which precipitate the events that lead inexorably to an embarrassing double-date. It is left to Fraser (Matthew Horne) to provide the joke that concludes this establishing scene:

[Exit Martin]
Pro Green: Well, well, well, Martin Stool.
[Fraser sniggers]
Alfie: Wickers. He took my mum’s name, unsurprisingly.
Pro Green: [To Alfie] I can see you’ve got a whiff of the Stool about you.
Fraser: Probably the squits.

The set-up for that joke is fairly tortuous – remember the Yakult? – but in the performing it really works, and is one of so many lines that make Fraser the funniest thing in Bad Education, and Horne’s funniest (if not most significant) role to date.

In the next two scenes we’re reminded of a couple of fundamentals about Bad Education and sitcoms in general, the first about jokes, the second about character.

Firstly, all sitcoms rely to a certain extent on the repetition and variation of a set of jokes: the situation remains the same, so must the humour. Some programmes do this well (exploiting the pleasure of familiarity and layering) others badly (with groan-inducing catchphrases and too little variation). Bad Education, however, is well-placed to make even little-varied repetitions fall into the first category, because of the situ we’re in. A school is a good place to do the same old jokes about – in the case of this scene – pupils’ gayness, wheelchairosity and multiple stepdaditude, because that is what school humour is like (relentless), so it’s realistic. In fact, it would probably be more realistic if there was even less variation.

Secondly, Alfie reminds us of his sitcomedic essence when he tells Pro Green, outside in the corridor, that ‘Me and the kids are mates.’ This is the aspect of his character that all sitcom leads need: it is both endearing and pathetic, equally and simultaneously. In a later scene Alfie admits to his class that he’s planning to go on a Valentine’s dinner with his dad. Says Stephen (Layton Williams), ‘I can’t work out whether that’s really sweet or incredibly sad.’ Well, Stephen, it’s both, it has to be.

Alfie bowls into the challenge of convincing Miss Gulliver to come round like an optimistic puppy. He genuinely believes that she will and, by living as if (the Power of the Powerless), he makes it so. But that’s not before we’ve had some fun with her refusals. In one of the funniest scenes from any episode Miss Gulliver says firmly, ‘[Your dad’s] not gonna put his head in an oven if I don’t come for dinner,’ and walks away down the corridor. Alfie then bellows after her retreating back a counterproductively detailed rundown of the inadequacies of his flat, popping in and out of the classroom door, as indicated by the ellipses:

Obviously not, ’cause I don’t have an oven in my flat… he could use the microwave… actually, you couldn’t use a microwave, ’cause when you tried to shut it your head would stop the door… he could take it into the bath… SHOWER! MY FLAT ONLY HAS A SHOWER!!

From this point on plot becomes a little too jarringly prominent, with Chantelle the exhibitionist (Nikki Runeckles) claiming she’s pregnant. This ends up, through a series of events long to tell, with Fraser’s inappropriate staging of the Paddy McGuinness date-show vehicle Take Me Out, coming to a halt as a result of Pro Green mistakenly believing Alfie to be the father of Chantelle’s unborn child. ‘At least you’re not firing blanks,’ says Fraser, setting his banter before morality as per. For some reason Alfie is convinced by Stephen to respond to the situation by singing from Les Mis. As Jing (Kae Alexander) asks when he’s finished, ‘Why did you do that?’ The script-editor at the feast.

As in a foundling tale, the illegitimate child must be dealt with in order for the story to resolve. In this case it’s dealt with by being made-up in the first place: ‘I wanted you to notice me, sir,’ admits Chantelle. This leaves the path open to the double-date we were promised. Alfie and Pro Green reach a deal and of course Miss Gulliver comes round in the end. And the climax turns out to be exactly that: Alfie, Miss Gulliver, and Joe (Ethan Lawrence) must endure listening to Martin and Pro Green having noisy sex as a blancmange wobbles on the coffee-table. The final joke is fine gross-out stuff. Martin comes back into the room clutching Alfie’s duvet-cover:

Postman Pat’s fine. [In a whisper] Mrs Goggins took the brunt of it.

* We can only wonder whether they both ended up teaching in the private sector. We know from a previous episode that Martin sent his son to Middleton House, Abbey Grove’s posh rival, and we get a glimpse of this world when Alfie tells Mitchell (Charlie Wernham) about when ‘[He] and the lads were on a pub-crawl […] I was dressed as Sauron.’ (Did Alfie do Teach First, do we think?) Moreover, Pro Green is depicted as a stuffy snob when it comes to teaching standards, school uniform, sexual morality, punctuality, and Abbey Grove in general. Needless to say that this is not a programme in which the potential legitimacy of any of her concerns are addressed: as the theme-tune goes, ‘Yeah politics…’

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