Tuesday, January 03, 2006

a year of comedy tv

Anyone out there watch 'Catterick' when it was on BBC3 or BBC 2 this year? I faintly remember hearing some qualified criticism of it when it was on the digital channel and then nothing more; completely missing it when it arrived on terrestrial a few months later. Happily, Andrew bought me the DVD for Christmas, which was exceptionally good timing considering I’d just spotted it on Amazon a few weeks ago and thought "Oh, yes, I never saw that", and had considered buying the series for myself. Well, no need now, but it would have been money well-spent if I had.

I've actually been catching up on lots of missed comedy in recent weeks; somehow I seemed to miss every show of note last year, and – over Christmas – have had the opportunity to watch a bunch of highly rated and usually good TV shows; from the last series of the now unfashionable series of "Little Britain" (the consequence of Boxing Day stupor: no-one could get up to change the channel), the second series of 'Nighty Night', which I only saw one episode of when it originally aired, a couple of the new 'Peep Shows', several 'Curb Your Enthusiasms', the best part of 'Extras' and the entirely of 'Nathan Barley'. I'm only behind on 'The Thick Of It', now, I think – which I still haven't seen. So, bearing in mind I missed all this stuff the first time round, some belated thoughts on the state of comedy...

One thing that's noticeable is that, although it's now impossible to talk about comedy without mentioning 'The Office', it isn't actually the show which has most informed the best comedy of the last year or two, although its influence is obvious in things like 'The Smoking Room'. Far more influential has been 'The League Of Gentlemen', which in many respects spawned the approach of 'Little Britain', 'Nighty Night' and 'Catterick', all of which either steal directly from the show (in the case of Matt Lucas's Marjorie Dawes) or use the writing and acting talents of LoG stalwarts. Mark Gattis's turn in 'Nighty Night' is hilariously funny, and 'Catterick' features one of the best comedy performances I've seen in Reece Shearsmith’s portrayal of Tony, the young 'nutter' intent on killing Vic Reeves' absurd Chris – who appears to be modelled on Peter Sutcliffe – and Bob Mortimer's Carl. How about this for a prediction, meanwhile – Bob to emerge as a serious acting talent, rather than just a comic?

'Catterick' itself is in many ways the natural conclusion to much of Vic and Bob's work over the last ten to fifteen years; it reminds me most of their wonderful one off 'The Weekenders', which like 'Catterick' superimposes the quirky frienship of Reeves and Mortimer into a small-town setting. After all the stage shows, panel games and sketch-shows, it's clear that Vic and Bob's humour works best in a naturalistic environment. Not that their Catterick isn't stuffed with odd characters, obviously. Nevertheless, 'Catterick' benefits from having a linear story and moments of genuine (if absurd) drama.

Much like 'Nighty Night', in fact, which does the same thing to a different effect – if Vic and Bob have spent the years refining their comic touch, Julia Davis is obviously spending her time maximising and exaggerating her impact. So the new series of 'Nighty Night' suffers slightly in comparison with the first, but remains acutely agonising viewing. Julia Davis's fellow comedian Catherine Tate turned in a typically up and down set of sketchs in her new show this year. The rude grandma and the teenage girl (so much funnier than Vicky Pollard) were exceptionally observed. Much of the rest of the show was below par, sadly.

The comedy of embarrasment – as practiced to extremes in Nighty Night - is most clearly observed in the work of Ricky Gervais and Larry David, as you're no doubt tired of people telling you. I watched 'Extras' with my brow creased, as I found it utterly underwhelming, quite lacking the skill and empathy of Gervais's work in 'The Office'. But as 'The Office' seems to improve with every viewing, I picked up the 'Extras' DVD before Xmas and gave it another go. No luck, I'm afraid – my interest was only sustained through four and a half episodes, and the rest remains unwatched. The Kate Winslet episode is super, the Les Dennis one – which most people seem to like the best – just uncomfortable viewing, and not actually very funny. All the fun is in Gervais persuading Dennis to read the lines he does. The actual comedy is lack-lustre. I think.

'Curb Your Enthusiasm' is better, but there’s only so much interest I have in Larry David's character – he inhabits an uninteresting world, and while he is funny, it doesn't do much for me. I'd take any of Woody Allen's recent work, even, over 'Curb Your Enthusiasm'. That said, I've only seen a few, so maybe it needs more time.

The two shows I liked best from the year are Chris Morris's hilarious 'Nathan Barley' and 'The Mighty Boosh', and it's no co-incidence that both programmes benefit from featuring Julian Barratt (and to a lesser extent Noel Fielding) in leading roles. 'Nathan Barley' got a fair bit of criticism when it came out, largely based on the fact that the usually on-the-button Chris Morris was lampooning a 'scene' which died out several years ago. I always found that criticism slightly odd, as no-one needs comedy to be grounded in the modern day for it to be funny, do they? Nevertheless, I saw a few episodes when it was first on and found it reasonably funny. Watching it on DVD again recently I thought it was a masterpiece.

The problem is that unless you watch it in a linear manner it's hard to divert attention from Nathan Barley himself, and the not-very-funny pranks and slogans he comes up with. But the real centre of the show is Barratt's exquisitely drawn Dan, who is regularly trumped by the 'hoxton twats' surrounding him. He is renamed 'Preacherman' and worshipped as a guru; but he hates everything about the people around him. The best part of the series comes when he cracks (whispering "the idiots are winning") and makes an exquisite fool of Nathan in a Hoxton cafĂ©, tricking him into buying a latte crammed with scrambled eggs and bacon. "Hah!", he cries, triumphant. Nathan is momentarily crushed, but reacts by declaring the conconction delicious. Dan's face crumples in anger. "Don't you understand?", he demands of Nathan, "I won! I won!". But Nathan comes out of it, as always, on top. Presumably Nathan Barley won’t be commissioned for a second series, but it deserves one.

'The Mighty Boosh', meanwhile, is more fun than anything else on telly. Again, Barratt is hilarious as the put-upon Howard Moon, although this time his colleague Noel Fielding trumps him with his Vince Noir, with his magnificent head of hair and look – best described by Howard as looking like a 'camden leisure pirate'. This year's second series saw the pair leave the confines of Bob Fossil's Zooniverse, where they spent the previous series, but the show retains a childlike enthusiasm for animals large and small, an obsession with Gary Numan and a preoccupation with language which sets it apart from its rivals. When Howard and Vince share quick-fire adlibs they're quite stunning. One name curiously absent from small-screen comedy this year, meanwhile – Steve Coogan – turns up as executive producer on this one. Hopefully he's been thinking of something new for Alan Partridge during his time away.

Other (sometimes guilty) TV pleasures from the year: 'Shameless', the fantastic 'Spooks', amazing new series from Michael Palin and David Attenborough, 'Dickens In America', 'Jamie's School Dinners', Darcus Howe's documentary about his son, 'Bleak House', a much improved year in 'Eastenders', Doctor Who, 'Veronica Mars' and 'Firefly' on DVD and 'Lost', which I got addicted to and disenchanted with several times over the course of the year. Some great programming on More4, meanwhile – although it seems to have lost its way a little bit. That said, 'The Corporation' is on tonight.

I sound like I just watch TV all the time, don't I? I do go out sometimes, too. And I read books. Honest.

1 comment:

Ben said...

Just watched the first episode of 'The Thick Of It' which I'd taped from BBC2. Good stuff - not side-splittingly hilarious, but then I hadn't expected it to be.

And I agree with you about 'Extras'. The humour in the two I saw (Ben Stiller and Ross Kemp) centred on the celebrities sending themselves up - it wasn't actually very funny at all because they were participating in such a "look at me, I can laugh at myself" kind of way.