The thing that always used to bother me about M*A*S*H as a child was the lack of combat. You’d see the realistic film of choppers at the beginning and, obviously, the plotline would quite often include casualties coming in from recent scenes of action. But the exciting stuff always seemed to happen offstage, a bit like in Shakespeare where some character strides on and tells you what a terrible battle there’s just been and you’re going, ‘Wait a second. Did we just skip past the most exciting bit?’
This clearly isn’t going to be a problem, though, with BBC3’s new sitcom about a bomb disposal unit in Afghanistan, Bluestone 42 (Tuesday). Within the first five minutes, one of the characters had been shot dead through the head, after which there was a brisk firefight culminating in the total eradication of the Taleban position with a LAW rocket. In next week’s episode we see another Taleban being taken out with an automatic rifle. Dad’s Army it ain’t.
But is that a good thing? As yet, I can’t make up my mind. The point about all the really great sitcoms is that the settings are just a pretext: M*A*S*H could just as well have been in Vietnam rather than Korea, or in a busy LA hospital, or in a fire station or a colony on Mars. The humour had much more to do with the characters and their relationships than with location or grimy verisimilitude.
Indeed, too much of the latter might have killed it stone-dead. A scene, say, where the unit gets overrun by North Koreans and the wounded all get murdered on their stretchers, Father Mulcahy is crucified and Hawkeye, Trapper and Houlihan are tied to a wall and used for bayonet practice: try wringing some laughs out of that.
Bluestone 42 isn’t quite that black but it has a good go. In the first episode, the running joke is how little the men care about the casualty. He’s just some brash, overweight American — a CIA adviser — who has been briefly attached to their unit and who keeps boring on about Fallujah and doing stupid things such as removing his helmet in the combat zone. When he’s killed it’s a great relief and the only mourning is pretend mourning, as briefly faked by the sitcom’s hero, cocky Captain Nick Medhurst (Oliver Chris), when he thinks it might provide a useful excuse to get into the knickers of the new padre, an attractive blonde (Kelly Adams — from Hustle).
I’ve no doubt this is all very true to life. Soldiers’ humour is the blackest of black — as you’d expect when you’re constantly having to brush off the constant possibility of death or hideous injury. I totally buy, too, a lot of the characterisation; the bone-dry, cynical, all-knowing O/C; the swaggering, insouciant, arrogant Medhurst; the foul-mouthed, wanking-fixated squaddies. Clearly, the writers have done their homework, and come up with a fine tribute to the camaraderie, expletive-riddled banter and professionalism of our boys (and girls) in Helmand. The acting is mostly first-rate, too. What’s letting it down at the moment, though, is its unevenness of tone and a certain insufficiency of rigour and craftsmanship that you’d never find in, say, the work of Jimmy Croft and David Perry.
That unlikely CIA character, for example: he’s a cliché — and a very lame one at that. Imagine how we’d feel if, in a US sitcom, an English character appeared saying ‘I say, old chap’ and wearing a pinstripe and bowler hat: it just cheapens the product. And if you are going to descend into cliché, at least make it the best cliché ever, as Croft and Perry did, for example, with the stereotypical Nazi U-Boat captain (Philip Madoc), who prompts Mainwaring to warn, ‘Don’t tell him, Pike.’
But Bluestone 42 has promise. And what I hope is that once it has settled down and stopped trying to prove to us a) how much it cares for and respects our brave boys and girls in Afghanistan and b) how carefully researched it is, it will relax into the very decent, properly structured and genuinely funny sitcom it could be.
I’m not sure I have quite such high hopes for the new Sue Perkins sitcom, Heading Out (BBC2, Tuesday). I desperately wanted to like it — thanks to The Great British Bake-Off she’s getting on for national treasure status; she’s likeable, attractive, funny; and it’s always nice to see a white, privately educated, middle-class Oxbridge graduate triumphing over society’s prejudice and being allowed to do well. Problem is it’s just not that funny.
Maybe it has been hijacked by its own premise: 40-year-old vet still hasn’t admitted to her mum that she’s a lesbian. It feels less like a comedy, more like an exercise in self-congratulation, as viewer and cast unite in feeling all warm and gooey about how enlightened their attitudes are towards homosexuality. ‘Hey! There’s two nice-looking young women in bed together and there’s nothing leer-worthy or weird about this, it’s just great!’ it feels as if we’re being prodded to think. But we didn’t need to be prodded to think that way. It’s where we already were, years ago. So the whole exercise seems rather quaint and dated.