If there’s one thing everyone knows about BBC comedy it’s that it’s going downhill. According to Danny Cohen, now Director of BBC Television, it’s too white and middle class; according to producer John ‘Blackadder’ Lloyd, it’s run by idiots like the bureaucrats in the BBC satire W1A who don’t understand what comedy is; according to the gag-inducingly PC Dara O’Briain, it’s too gag-inducingly PC (he means the quota system they’re trying to introduce whereby every comedy panel show must have a token female); according to John Cleese, it’s never been the same since John Cleese left; etc.
Probably they’re all right. I hardly ever watch comedy series any more because they’re invariably full of young people being free and having lots of messed-up fun while yet asking us to feel sorry for them. But this week, just to check what the kids are up to, I thought I’d have a look at Comedy Feeds — the BBC’s now-annual newbie talent contest for sitcoms and sketch shows.
The BBC screened them all on Sunday night, none of them more than half an hour long, some much shorter. It was an opportunity to play comedy Caligula, deciding on the basis of a few brief scenes which bright young things have a future, and which really shouldn’t give up the day job.
There was one involving vibrators that started quite well: just a nice bit of visual comedy business in which one girl went to the communal TV remote to nick the batteries for her sex toy, only to discover to her disgust that they’d already been pinched for the same purpose by another female flatmate.
But then, unfortunately, it continued in that vein and I realised that smut was all it had to offer: endless filth by gobby girls banging on in different accents about vaginas. Presumably the writer thought she was being edgy or refreshingly frank or confrontational or daring, but actually it was just crass. This can be a problem, I think, with female comedy. When it’s not about neurotic self-hatred it’s about trying to outgross the boys with results that repel rather than amuse.
You might have levelled a similar charge at In Deep, written by Tom Joseph and Thomas Eccleshare, whose MacGuffin comprised a message concealed in a tampon in the intimate parts of a female corpse. What redeemed it, though, was its unpredictability and crazy energy as it told the story of two hopeless inner-city policemen — Ashley Walters and Adam Deacon — yearning for excitement in their routine lives and suddenly (à la The Wrong Mans) getting far, far too much of it. It ended on a cliffhanger with our two heroes bound in gaffer tape, about to be murdered by a crazed homosexual serial killer. That’s the way to do your showreels: leave commissioning editors gagging to know what happens next.
I’d say the other team to watch are the hugely engaging Tom Rosenthal and Naz Osmanoglu. Shame about the title — Flat TV — which would only work if people actually used the phrase ‘Flat TV’, rather than ‘Flat Screen TV’. But that quibble apart, this series has legs. The situation may be hackneyed — hopeless male flatmates yearning to get off with the much sassier girls in the flat next door — but it works because the chemistry is great, the lines are funny and the set-up quirkily digressive and post-modern.
The premise is that the boys inhabit a universe where their real lives collide with a TV fantasy world on their in-house channel Flat TV. So, when they’re trying to decide which note to pin on the girls’ door, their respective efforts are judged by an X-Factor-style panel (with Rosenthal doing a bravura Simon Cowell). It ended disastrously (in a good way) with the boys smashing to smithereens a live lobster in front of the deeply unimpressed girls (one of them an ardent vegetarian who can’t eat anything ‘with a face’), as part of a misguided attempt to demonstrate a theory one of them read on the internet that lobsters are immortal.
We’ll skip lightly past the one set in a KFC-style fast food outlet (no) and the one set over the course of a school parents’ evening (no no no) to the other possible contender, Otherworld. This is set on an Earth where a lovably evil alien like the one that bursts out of John Hurt’s chest in Alien introduces a series of comedy sketches: one involving a reluctant couple of pandas in a zoo who can’t get it together because the male is a Scottish drunk and the female has the hots for her keeper; another, a spoof trailer for a pastiche of Legally Blonde, where the deceptively dumb female who wants to go to Harvard Law School is played by a blow-up doll. God, they really are obsessed with sex, are they not, the kids of today? I blame Tinder. Bring back Dad’s Army.