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Andy Hamilton was an exceedingly welcome panellist in the days when I did The News Quiz, so I’m biased.

19 November 2008

12:00 AM

19 November 2008

12:00 AM

Andy Hamilton was an exceedingly welcome panellist in the days when I did The News Quiz, so I’m biased.

Andy Hamilton was an exceedingly welcome panellist in the days when I did The News Quiz, so I’m biased. But I genuinely found his sitcom, Outnumbered (BBC 1, Saturday), co-written with his long-time collaborator Guy Jenkin, terrifically funny. It is set in a well-worn situation — the family — and the first episode was a cliché plot, the wedding where everything goes wrong, but that didn’t matter. I watched it on my portable DVD player during a crowded train journey. People miserably standing, propped upright only by each other as we bounced over the points, watched in resentment as I sat curled up and cramped, laughing my head off.


The cunning of the show is to script the adults but have the children ad lib their lines. Not every one, clearly (‘Did you have a boyfriend who knew the Queen? Mummy said he was a guest of Her Majesty…’), but most of them. The star is the younger boy Ben, played with unconscious brilliance by Daniel Roche. Every parent of a male child knows Ben. He makes Just William look like a model of unflinching logic as his mind wanders off hither and yon, up hill and down dale, away with the fairies. They’re late for the wedding, and his little sister is locked in the bathroom. ‘We could put beavers through the window and they would eat the door…’ His conversation with the almost panic-stricken vicar (‘If God can do anything, why didn’t he zap King Herod?’) was a piece of sustained comedy that a professional ten times his age would have been proud of. The adults manage to keep up, but only just.

I had to watch Strictly Come Dancing (BBC1, Saturday) to see if my old chum John Sergeant survived another day. Until this past week the judges detested him because he subverts the whole thing — indeed undermines the notion that ballroom dancing is more important than any other hobby, such as collecting beer mats. One of them moaned that having the public vote for him and his partner ‘makes a mockery of the whole show’.

But the show makes a mockery of itself. Most of the so-called celebrities are described as ‘TV presenters’ which, in these days of 24-hour broadcasting on a hundred channels, covers much of the population. The judges are encouraged to squabble cattily among each other. Bruce Forsyth tells sort-of jokes. Like many random remarks uttered by elderly gentlemen they’re meant to be funny, but you don’t quite see why. It was intriguing that after all the publicity Sergeant got a week ago — in spite of instructions, the public insisted on voting for him — the judges decided to be kind last Saturday. Like the Romanoffs, they had heard the mob advancing on the Winter Palace. Even so, when he and his partner survived again in the results programme on Sunday, they could hardly forbear to spit in disgust. It was a good moment.

The Devil’s Whore (Channel 4, Wednesday) is about the English Civil War, though for budgetary reasons has been filmed in South Africa. This was a surprise, like hearing that Zulu had been shot in Skegness. Peter Flannery, who conceived and wrote the serial, spent 14 years trying to get it on to the screen. He seems to believe that the Civil War has been Tippexed out of our history, which is not my impression, though admittedly we tend to get more of those wacky Tudors. I wanted to like the show more than I did. The cast is extraordinary — John Simm, Andrea Riseborough, Maxine Peake, with Peter Capaldi as a red-eyed Charles I, a role at first sight as unlike the evil spin-doctor Malcolm Tucker from The Thick Of It as you could imagine. Yet both men are simultaneously tyrannical and terrified. Charles has people executed to calm his nerves, rather like Tucker.

I suppose Flannery’s point is that the Civil War was the key to all our subsequent history, and was a period of wild and frightening anarchy. The difficulty is that, in the end, all historical dramas seem to emerge from the sausage machine more or less the same. There’s a lynching and a flogging in the first few minutes. There are four-posters, long shaggy hair-dos, gorgeous frocks and swords clashing, while as many as a dozen extras do battle with each other. No wonder they call it the fog of war; the mist is essential to disguise the paucity of numbers.


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