There’s lots of comedy about, but it’s not what Americans call ‘water-cooler’ comedy, shows that get people talking at work the next day. No Hancock or Monty Python or Fast Show or The Office. In the old days, pre-video recorders, pre-repeats on freeview, we had to find excuses to stay at home when we were invited out and didn’t want to miss a show. ‘Oh, gosh, I’m so sorry, I see my uncle is to be hanged that night.’ Nowadays we can’t pretend.
On the other hand, there is less to enjoy, less to talk about. Do you know anyone at work who is watching Stella (Sky One, Friday)? Ruth Jones, the ferocious Nessa in Gavin and Stacey, plays a single mother in the Welsh valleys, which sounds depressing but isn’t. The town she lives in is like Dylan Thomas’s Llareggub, only with sex. Lots of sex. In the most recent episode she has a toy boy, and they are at it every available moment. Her gorgeous daughter is pregnant by, and engaged to, a Punjabi boy who seems to be playing the field, though it turns out that he’s only taking dancing lessons, a fact that Stella discovers by wearing a burka and climbing a drainpipe.
It’s full of such mild surrealism — the people who live opposite keep a horse in their house. Stella is loved by the school lollipop man, who is being seduced by a plump female Brummie lifestyle guru. The people are real, and there’s an amiable sunniness, plus a sense of being set in 2012, which most sitcoms aren’t. It’s all details: the grotty food in the eight-till-late grocery, the hideous colours of the predatory Stagecoach bus company, the sari shop in Cardiff.
Which cropped up in the last series of Harry Hill’s TV Burp (ITV, Saturday). This has always been perfect Saturday-night viewing. If you watched the soaps, you’d love the way it took the mickey because you loved those shows. If you never watched the soaps, you’d love the way it took the mickey because you look down on them. Now and again I felt that Hill had lost the will to be brilliant for a whole half-hour (did we need the farting horse?). Then he’d do a sustained comic turn unlike anything else on television. Someone in EastEnders was going to live in Cardiff, and the other characters behaved as if she was emigrating to the moon. So Hill kept chipping into the tearful histrionic scenes: ‘Actually, there are two trains an hour from Cardiff to Paddington. But if you travel on Mondays to Fridays you won’t be able to take advantage of their Weekend First offer, when for just £10 you can upgrade to first class…’ The Burp will be hugely missed, and I can’t imagine anyone else presenting it.
Dawn French and Alfred Molina are the only two characters in Roger and Val Have Just Got In, back for another series (BBC2, Wednesday). They play a long-married couple who arrive home, usually from work, but this week from a wedding. Very little happens, though it emerges that he has been sacked, while she has been shortlisted for a deputy headship. They bicker. There’s a problem with the heating. They remember the favourite rock hits played at the wedding. She makes potato cakes from some
leftover potato. There are no jokes. Is it funny? Sort of; we recognise ourselves, and that’s always funny. But we feel we are intruding into our own lives, eavesdropping on our own conversations. I’ve seen a few episodes now, and it makes me slightly queasy, as if in the Roald Dahl story when the husband bugs the guests’ bedroom.
The show that made me laugh most was Peter Capaldi’s Cricklewood Greats (BBC4, Sunday), a spoof documentary about the British film industry. Can you be lovingly contemptuous? Can you cherish something and despise it at the same time? Capaldi, the terrifying Malcolm Tucker from The Thick of It, seemed to do just that.
If the people he was satirising were still alive, they could have sued. Florrie Fontaine (star of Clog Capers of 1932) was Gracie Fields, except that instead of going to Capri she spends the war with the Nazi high command. Hammer was reborn Acton Films, making Dr Worm with the king of horror, Lionel Crisp, plus hits such as Breasts of a Vampire. The Carry Ons became the Thumbs Up series with a brilliantly banal hospital scene (‘This patient hasn’t been feeling himself, nurse!’). They even found a moment to destroy Antonioni’s Blow-Up. The ending was a coup — the real Terry Gilliam appeared to explain how he had bankrupted Cricklewood Studios with his absurdly ambitious movie: ‘Lots of animals were harmed during the making of this film.’ Well worth staying in for.