God, it must be awful to have been at school with James Corden. As he sat fatly at the back of the class farting and flicking bogies and distracting the teacher with his relentless smartarsery, you’ll have consoled yourself with the happy thought that at least this repellent, maddeningly irritating waster was never going to make anything of his life…
Then, years later, you’ll have opened the papers to read rave reviews of his hit sitcom Gavin & Stacey. A fluke, you’ll have thought, till you saw the similarly impressive notices of his West End triumph One Man, Two Guvnors. And any schadenfreude you might have experienced over the recent panning of his dismal Christmas appearance in Esio Trot will have been cruelly dissipated by the news of his £1.5-million role hosting The Late Late Show on CBS and by the extravagant plaudits for his other Christmas venture The Wrong Mans (BBC2).
But it’s precisely because Corden is so infuriating that The Wrong Mans was so blindingly brilliant. Its premise, essentially, was this: imagine what would happen if an incredibly annoying, relentlessly puerile loser fantasist — Corden playing (almost) himself — suddenly found himself immersed in a high-octane thriller plot so bloody and convoluted it made James Bond look like The Vicar of Dibley. Like the first series, it really shouldn’t have worked but it did, spectacularly.
What it had — a bit like Corden’s character Phil Bourne, a Walter Mitty-ish post-room boy at Bracknell city council — was absolute conviction: in its script, in its impossible, yet weirdly credible storyline, in its performances (with the serious characters playing it absolutely dead straight, as a foil to the relentless ineptitude of Bourne and his hapless sidekick Sam Pinkett), and in its clearly generous budget, with location sequences all the way from Bracknell to Texas, as well as a tandem parachute jump from a light aircraft, which I’m pretty sure only happened because it was something the two co-stars had always rather fancied doing and it was a clever way of putting it on expenses….
Typical of its genius was the scene where Bourne and Pinkett (Mathew Baynton) find themselves miraculously sprung from a Texas jail, only to realise that their surly and menacing rescuers are under the mistaken impression that they are the world’s two greatest explosives experts. Their job is to enter a high-security lab and extract a deadly compound.
‘Gentlemen, what can we expect once we get inside the lab?’ asks a muscular gangster called Reza (‘Are you called Razor because you’re bald?’ Bourne has asked him earlier). The boys look nervously at one another. There’s a long, awkward pause. Then Pinkett has a brave stab: ‘Test tubes, Bunsen burners, tripods, pipettes, etc. It’s a very hazardous environment so it’s really important that we all wear safety goggles.’
The mistake that the drama never made would have been to have Bourne and Pinkett extricate themselves at key moments by demonstrating flashes of intelligence and insight. But, delightfully, they never did. Always, but always, they remained total and utter dicks, as for example when Bourne proposes to escape by commandeering a plane, with him piloting. Pinkett gently reminds him that he doesn’t know how to fly. Bourne: ‘I’ll have you know I have over a thousand hours of flight-simulator experience.’ Pinkett: ‘What on?’ Bourne: ‘The F-19 Stealth Fighter.’ Pinkett: ‘Amiga?’ Bourne: ‘Correct.’ Pinkett: ‘Right, well even if that was technically realistic it’s over 20 years out of date.’ Bourne: ‘OK. You fly. I’ll navigate.’
My other seasonal highlight was the Mapp and Lucia remake (BBC1) starring Anna Chancellor, Miranda Richardson and most of the cast of The League of Gentlemen. Not having read the original E.F. Benson novels (though, of course, I’m going to now) I couldn’t tell you whether this was a grotesque travesty or the very thing, but my family and our New Year’s hosts were royally amused. Especially by the ‘g’ru’.
In fact, I was so impressed that I very nearly blew out my New Year’s Eve party proper so I could stay at home and watch the final episode while everyone else went out and played. Glad I didn’t, though, because the party I went to was rather fun, full of charmingly debauched semi-youth telling me useful things, like this game that I think we should all try some time, where you send those Chinese lanterns into the air over your estate, then shoot them down with fireworks from a home-made rocket-launch tube. Were they kidding me or is this actually possible?