The Soul of Wit

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(BBC Media Center / Baby Cow / Three Feet Productions)

Doug Naylor has built up a tremendous amount of goodwill, and if he wants to coast off that, I couldn’t blame him. As the co-creator and co-writer of the first six years of the superb Red Dwarf, his place on in the UK’s sitcom hall of fame is assured, save for some appalling scandal of Yewtree-like proportions. When he split from Rob Grant in 1994, we learned that Naylor must have been the ideas man of the partnership, Grant offering those all-important jokes on his behalf. The subsequent series of Red Dwarf; the unfunny single-camera one, the moderately amusing studio sitcom, the unfunny single-camera revival and the okay nostalgia trip of last year, have all proven this to be the case.

Expectations suitably lowered, I went into Over To Bill, a show that had floated around various commissioning editors’ desks for two years before Shane Allen gave it a shot during the revived Comedy Playhouse lineup. The opening of the show, unfortunately, demonstrated just how far behind the times Naylor is when it comes to crafting sitcoms.

If brevity is the soul of wit, then you’d expect a 30-minute sitcom to begin with as quick explanation of the premise — a fired weatherman tries to get a new job — as possible, so that we had a lot longer to spend with the characters. Unfortunately, here, we’re treated to Bill Onion (Hugh Dennis) driving (driving!?) to New Broadcasting House (already put to great effect in W1A), going up to his office, doing a weather report, sitting at his desk, being fired, going back down, getting caught in the rain, having his car clamped… It all felt like the sort of first-draft a screenwriting manual would teach you in order to show your character’s plight.

Subsequently, we get the sort of low-rent farce that would have been dated two decades ago. You know, the sort of dialogue that runs along the lines of:

    NEIL MORRISSEY
I saw my ex-wife last night

 HUGH DENNIS
Oh, how is that back-stabbing bitch?

   NEIL MORRISSEY
We’re getting back together

HUGH DENNIS (Spit-take)
That’s wonderful!

(I should add, that’s not a quote from the show, but it’s ninety percent there)

In the show, Neil Morrissey’s character complains that his new (old) beau is going to systematically edit-out his less desirable friends — putting his relationship with Hugh Dennis at risk. If the idea of women hen-pecking their husbands, straight from the ‘70s rule-book of domestic sitcom plots, wasn’t bad enough, then the self-plagarism surely must be. The whole idea has been copied writ-large from Red Dwarf episodes ‘DNA’ and ‘Duct Soup,’ where both Lister and Kryten rebel at the idea that the very same notion.

Then there’s the overall flat direction, which is shot and acted as if this was a low-rent 8pm drama, rather than a location sitcom. In fact, characters stop to laugh at punchlines as if it was naturalistic dialogue, there’s awkward pacing to the lines and a lot of shot, reverse-shot staging that began to grate after a while. As much as it pains me to do in someone whose comedy I have loved for so long, this left me cold, and if it did make it to series, it would need a hell of a lot of work.

It’s a different situation with next week’s Monks, written by That Was Then, This is Now’s pairing of Dan Tetsell and Danny Robins. The premise is that a lazy benefits cheat hides in his local monastery to avoid going to prison, fusing a wise-cracking slacker with a group of oddball monks. If it sounds like a thumb-sketch of The Vicar of Dibley, then you wouldn’t be far off, especially given that James Fleet is once again playing a nice-but-dim type. Given the genteel setting, you won’t be surprised to hear that it’s not a laugh-riot, but clearly has plenty of heart and affection. Certainly, if Miranda is the gold-standard for a gentle — by which I mean — nothing too vulgar, safe enough for your nan and nephew and yet still entertaining — sitcom, then this comes in close behind. The show’s biggest strength is in its cast of top-flight talent, with a line-up of Mark Heap, Justin Edwards, James Frost and Fergus Craig all giving strong performances. In fact, the only downside is that Seann Walsh himself. Considering that his stand-up appearances mostly riff off the fact that he’s mildly unlikeable, he comes off here as, well, mildly unlikeable.

BBC’s Comedy Playhouse, Tuesday nights on BBC One

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