James Walton

Comedy returns

Plus: Richard Gere was lofty in BBC2's MotherFatherSo, and every line continues to be pitch-perfect in Channel 4's Derry Girls

Comedy returns
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BBC2’s MotherFatherSon announced its status as a classy thriller in the traditional way: by ensuring that for quite a long time we had no idea what was going on.

At first it looked as if the focus would be on a missing teenager whose phone we saw abandoned in the woods. But then we cut to an American called Max (Richard Gere, no less) arriving in London by private jet on an apparent mission to choose our next prime minister. Then to a younger man running fast and screaming.

Then to a veteran female journalist being sacked — and not only because she’d just lit a cigarette at her desk. Then back to the young screamer, who by now had revealed himself as the newspaper’s coked-up editor. Then to a woman working in a homeless centre. Then back to Max taking tea at Downing Street, where his impressive sophistication was perhaps rather undermined by his total astonishment at the existence of something called shortbread. (‘Short… bread?’ he muttered wonderingly.)

Eventually, the programme could put it off no longer and was forced to bring these elements together. As well as an all-powerful media mogul, Max is the father of the coked-up editor Caden (Billy Howle), and the woman in the homeless centre is Caden’s mother Kathryn (Helen McCrory). The veteran fag-smoker has also teamed up with another journo to bring Max down, apparently with the aid of that missing-teenager business.

Meanwhile, the signifiers of classy television continued to pile up: the lavish sets; the regular use of slightly pointless aerial shots; the dialogue in which highly polished remarks are exchanged with actorly aplomb.

Oddly, when it came to auditioning possible PMs, Max proved something of pushover. ‘I can hear them, out there,’ the idealistic Angela Howard (Sarah Lancashire) told him. ‘Their pain. I can feel it.’ Yet, instead of reacting with the kind of scorn you might expect from the average billionaire mogul, Max seemed instantly won over.

He was, however, far less sympathetic when it came to the pain of his son: a screwed-up man with plenty to be screwed up about. Visiting Caden’s penthouse apartment, Max brutally observed that Caden had all ‘the accoutrements’ of a successful life — but not the thing itself.

This verdict was difficult to disagree with, especially once Caden had had a spectacular breakdown that began with him sitting in his car yelling the word ‘accoutrements’ and ended with a stroke. Unfortunately, though, a similar verdict also felt applicable to MotherFatherSon: that it has all the accoutrements of a successful drama, but (so far at least) isn’t the thing itself. Awkwardly, too, it sometimes feels as if Gere’s lofty performance as a very famous man surrounded by lesser mortals may be inspired more by his own feelings at finding himself on British telly than by Max’s mission.

Elsewhere, the week was notable for the return of two of the best comedies of recent years. After the triumph of Killing Eve, Phoebe Waller-Bridge is back with Fleabag (BBC1), which on Monday featured a family dinner to celebrate the engagement of Fleabag’s widowed father (Bill Paterson) to her hideous godmother (Olivia Colman, making a rare screen appearance). What followed was as unsparing and sharply written as ever. But, compared with the first series, it was also a little short on laughs — maybe because, somewhat alarmingly, Fleabag herself seems to have become the voice of sanity and as such largely off-limits as a comedy target.

There are, mind you, promising signs that she might be about to fall for Andrew Scott as an improbably cool and sweary Catholic priest. So with a bit of luck she’ll soon be messed-up and darkly funny again.

In theory the comedy in Derry Girls (Channel 4, Tuesday) should be pretty dark too, what with the main characters growing up amid the Troubles of 1990s Northern Ireland. Yet, without ever minimising the sheer weirdness of its setting, the programme somehow remains utterly joyous.

On Tuesday, the girls were part of a well-meaning project to reduce sectarianism by bringing Catholic and Protestant teenagers together on a residential course. For the winningly ardent Erin (Saoirse-Monica Jackson), this was an opportunity to transform the Province. For the would-be worldly Michelle (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell), it was a chance to cop off with a real-life Protestant boy. Both were, of course, disappointed, as the mutual incomprehension of the two groups became clear in an episode where, once again, every line was pitch-perfect.

Finally, a quick mention for Home, which followed straight afterwards on Channel 4. An English couple arriving back from a French driving holiday to find a Syrian refugee in their boot might not sound an obvious premise for a new sitcom. But in this case, the result is by turns funny and touching — and often both at the same time.