Television Comedy Reviews

Television Comedy Reviews by Joshua Gaskell

Tag: Sitcom

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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Veep, S03E07

By Simon Blackwell and Tony Roche
Dundee Productions for HBO
Sunday, 18th May 2014

The American sitcom-writer is regularly tempted to write a Londinensian episode of his or her programme: a familiar-unfamiliar sit to revitalise (it is hoped) the com. The results are often strained (as in a recent episode of Parks and Recreation, for example). But, although they’re making an American sitcom, perhaps because Blackwell, Roche (and Armando Iannucci) are themselves British, this episode of Veep is no insult to the ‘Special Relationship’ after which it’s named.

Vice President Selina Meyer – the VP, or Veep (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) – is visiting her counterpart in London, Deputy Prime Minster Peter Mitchell (Darren Boyd). (The DP, or Deep?) The first shot is of Tower Bridge, which as we all know is what a dumb Missourian thought he was getting when he bought the less impressive London Bridge in 1968. The story is pertinent to the special relationship not because it’s true but because it’s told: the British and the Americans both want some of what the other culture has, whilst at the same time needing to assert their differences by taking the piss. This is repeatedly figured here in comments about Britain and America that are satirical whilst at the same time indulgent: complimentary criticisms, critical compliments, which will make viewers in both countries laugh. Amy, chief of staff (Anna Chlumsky) says of Dan, deputy director of communications (Reid Scott), ‘I would like to shoot him, but there are no guns in this country’: Brits feel good about their gun laws and Americans (the ones that are watching Veep) feel good about agreeing with the Brits. Dan refers to Prince Charles as ‘that sixty-five-year-old fucking intern’: Americans feel good about their democracy and Brits (the ones that are watching Veep) feel good about agreeing with the Americans.* But as we would expect from Veep, the mutuality of the special relationship doesn’t last through to the credits.

At their first meeting, Peter challenges Selina about a security conference:

PETER: The transatlantic security organisation, that’s going to Frankfurt and not here because…
SELINA: No, honestly, we haven’t made a decision about that yet.
PETER: I hope that honestly isn’t one of those words that’s lost its meaning whilst travelling the Atlantic.

The following day, in an attempt to ingratiate Selina to the British press, the team have arranged for her to be photographed in a pub. As Dan puts it, they’re trying ‘some reverse My Fair Lady shit […] showing she’s a regular gal’. Things seem to be going well as she chats to the landlord. He jovially tells her, ‘[I’ve] lived round ’ere me ’ole life. Born and bred West Ham fan […] West Ham United, they’re my local team’. But then, as she’s drinking her pint, Selina mistakes his cockneyish encouragement to get it ‘down in one’ for a Japanesey interjection with which she’s unfamiliar. Gamely she joins in: ‘Daniwah! […] Daniwah!’

Meanwhile, Jonah (Timothy Simons), who works for Selina’s rival for the presidency, is in town hoping to dig up some dirt. This comes in the form of a leak from Amy. Amy thinks Selina needs to ditch Ray (Christopher Meloni) – personal-trainer-cum-fuck-buddy – so tells Jonah about an inflammatory essay that Ray posted online. This finds its way to the journalists covering a joint press conference given by Selina and Peter:

Madam Vice President, can you comment on the breaking story about your personal trainer Ray Whelans? […] He wrote an essay saying ‘Obese children are possessed by the devil as a punishment for past sins.’

Selina does her best to wriggle out of it, but because Peter knows that she lied to him about the security meeting he decides to turn the screw: ‘I think we’re in it now. I think we probably should maybe see this through to the end.’

So Ray is fired. The visit is in (Deep) shit. Dan – ‘Dani-Blah’ as the press are calling him – has a panic attack and ends up in the hospital, where he too is fired for having hired Ray. In the end Selina calls time on the ‘special’ relationship: ‘let’s get the merry old fuck out of merry old England.’

* Another compliment-criticism: Mike, Selina’s director of communications (Matt Walsh), says that when the Brits find out the security meeting is to be held in Frankfurt instead of London, they’re ‘gonna be unhappy…er’: Americans laugh at miserable Brits and Brits feel good about their reserve.
† Mitchell also asks Selina about US spying. She tells him, ‘the US doesn’t spy on its allies […] we collect data’, to which he replies, ‘same thing’.
‡ The scene is filmed in the King’s Arms, Waterloo, which would actually make his local team Millwall. Upton Park is about six miles east. I guess, as the proverb goes, kings have long arms.

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