From Monty Python and The Holy Grail to Blackadder, it’s long been established that one of the underlying rules of historical comedy is to subvert the period setting with knowingly incongruous nods to the present day. Which is all well and good when employed as part of a wider comic arsenal, but cheap and wearying when overdone.
Up the Women - Thursday, BBC 4, 8:30pm
Playhouse Presents... Psychobitches - Thursday, Sky Arts 1, 9pm
David Bowie – Five Years - Today, BBC2, 9:20pm
Unfortunately, that’s the fatal undoing of Jessica Hynes’ Edwardian-era sitcom UP THE WOMEN, which drills away at the supposedly hilarious spectacle of characters from the past failing to comprehend things we now take for granted.
Thus we have Adrian Scarborough’s hapless caretaker getting into a pickle over the installation of a light bulb, and Rebecca Front’s bullying snob sniffily dismissing electricity as a fad that’ll never catch on. These moments, I should point out, are clearly regarded by Hynes and her five co-writers as rib-tickling conceits of massive comic import. Given that Hynes is a fine actress and co-writer of fondly regarded sitcom Spaced, the unrelenting weakness of her latest effort is hugely disappointing. It’s not unreasonable to expect more from one of Britain’s foremost comedy performers.
The only truly notable aspect of Up The Women is that it’s a traditional studio-bound sitcom accompanied by a live laughter track, an ancient form new to “high-brow” BBC 4. But that presents its own problems; you can clearly hear the underwhelmed audience almost willing themselves to laugh as gag after gag falls flat.
Lines such as “I’ve had to swaddle mother again, and she really does put up quite a fight” and “Does your husband know you’re cavorting with skirted anarchists?” have the rhythmic cadence of funny dialogue, but they’re not actually witty in themselves. A sense of embarrassingly forced whimsy hangs over its attempts to revel in florid language à la Blackadder. But Hynes and co aren’t in the same league as Curtis and Elton at their peak.
The characters speak in a combination of BBC Edwardiana and anachronistic contemporary argot, which, if one were feeling charitable, could be regarded as a parody of Andrew Davies’ penchant for dropping contemporary terms into his period dramas. But the paucity of wit on display means it’s all for naught.
Hynes plays a timid yet worldly-wise idealist whose belief in the suffragette movement throws her into sharp conflict with Front’s stubbornly immovable conservative. And that’s about it. All concerned – including an almost unrecognisable Vicki Pepperdine from Getting On as a daffy, buck-toothed housekeeper – deliver game performances, but no amount of gusto can compensate for such poor material. Having wasted such a fine cast, Up The Women merely wanders along to unremarkable effect.
Even taking into account the inherent difficulties of introducing a brand new sitcom over the course of 30 minutes, this lifeless groaner has to be regarded as a failure.
A somewhat more successful attempt at female-fronted comedy is PSYCHOBITCHES, in which Rebecca Front crops up again as a therapist whose patient roster consists solely of famous women from throughout history. Essentially an excuse for a fast-paced series of disconnected sketches, this simple premise is only semi-successfully executed by co-writer/director Jeremy Dyson from The League of Gentlemen.
Resembling a surreal parody of the great In Treatment, the series begins with a neat visual gag involving Rosa Parks – I suspect that’s the first and last time I’ll ever place those words in that order – before roaring into gear with Front’s Grandma’s House co-star Samantha Spiro delivering a pitch-perfect evisceration of Audrey Hepburn’s irritatingly kooky screen persona.
Unfortunately, it then devotes far too much time to a mirthless series of Brontë sisters sketches – no, it wouldn’t be hilarious if they were portrayed as gruff, foul-mouthed northerners – and Julia Davis as Sylvia Plath, which, while beautifully performed, hammers its one joke into the ground. Elsewhere, Frances Barber and a dragged-up Mark Gatiss (Dyson’s League of Gentlemen cohorts crop up throughout the series) sell the hell out of a warring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, but without banishing memories of French & Saunders’ superior take on their feud. The only other sketch that really takes flight is Sharon Horgan as a glamorously self-obsessed Eva Peron.
As an excuse for a cast of talented, funny women to show off their versatility, Psychobitches is a success. But reducing Front to a straight role feels like a waste of her abilities, which merely adds to the overall air of mild disappointment.
The Dame receives his due in DAVID BOWIE: FIVE YEARS, a globe-trotting documentary charting pivotal moments in his career. Gloriously awash with rare archive footage – thrill as our man mimes his own disembowelment while Andy Warhol coos off-camera! – it’s narrated by a disembodied Bowie culled from old interviews, while various music journalists pontificate earnestly in artfully deserted warehouses. Key collaborators, including Brian Eno (chasing after his cat, no less), Tony Visconti, Nile Rodgers and, resembling a gnomic bank manager, Robert Fripp also crop up to discuss his creative process in some depth. It’s a stellar tribute to one of rock’s most restlessly innovative artists.
Small screen movies
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Tomorrow, Channel 4, 9pm
Mike Leigh followed the successful yet profoundly irritating Happy-Go-Lucky with this more subdued study of marriage and friendship. Based, as the title suggests, over the space of a year, it stars Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen as a happily-married middle-aged couple whose polite tolerance of a drunkly dysfunctional friend (Lesley Manville on electrifying car-crash form) is sorely tested as her behaviour deteriorates. Deliberately paced and occasionally uncomfortable, it’s an absorbing character piece.
THE 7th VOYAGE OF SINBAD
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Today, Film4, 3pm
The late Ray Harryhausen brings his stop-motion genius to this entertaining 1958 family adventure in which Sinbad is tasked with recovering a magic lamp guarded by monsters.
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Today, Channel 4, 10:40pm
Eddie Murphy made his dazzling big-screen debut in this propulsive 1982 comedy-thriller in which he plays a criminal released from prison to help a racist cop (Nick Nolte) track down a killer.
THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH
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Today, BBC2, 10:50pm
David Bowie was perfectly cast as an impassive alien who, while stranded on Earth, becomes fabulously rich and corrupt, in this inscrutable yet striking 1976 parable from director Nicolas Roeg.