LAST week I slagged off Ben Elton’s sitcom The Wright Way for being old-fashioned. Poor Ben took such a kicking for it that I almost felt sorry for him.
STV, Monday, 9pm
The Job Lot
STV, Monday, 9.30pm
Dave Allen: God’s Own Comedian
BBC2, Monday, 9pm
For just when you thought TV couldn’t get any more 1973, along comes Vicious, a comedy with Sir Ian McKellen in a silk dressing-gown standing regally – nay, queenly – on a staircase and squawking camply at Sir Derek Jacobi in a fetching sleeveless pullover who’s squawking camply back at him.
The trouble with The Wright Way is that it doesn’t seem as if Elton is being nostalgic for how sitcoms used to be, or that he’s operating in defiance of shows like The Office and all those pale imitations, churned out of David Brent’s hyperactive photocopier. The Wright Way appears to be the funniest and most relevant programme he could make, which isn’t very funny or relevant at all.
Vicious, though, is a more self-conscious attempt to evoke the spirit of ’73. It’s completely stage-bound. We never leave Freddie and Stuart’s flat. The doorbell rings often; phone, too. Sometimes Stuart (Jacobi) shrieks: “These aren’t calling hours!” Most likely, there have been very few callers in the 40-odd years the pair have lived together, blissfully ignorant of the changing world (acceptance of homosexuality, not all comedy looking like Brian Rix is about to enter, stage left, mightily flustered). A modern sitcom like Modern Family has its gay couple flamboyantly “out” and adopting babies; Stuart hasn’t even told his mother about Freddie.
Why’s it called Vicious? Well, these guys are very bitchy. “Are you wearing mascara?… Your mother looked well for someone who doesn’t have a heartbeat… I’m surprised you can see it through the milky film that coats your cataracts.”
At first I quite enjoyed the campery. Frances de la Tour popped in, reminding us of her big 1970s flat-based hit (what was it called again, Rising Camp?). But, in every sense, where can this one possibly go from here?
Hard on the heels of Vicious’s tasselled loafers and completing an ITV comedy double-bill is The Job Lot. Don’t know about you but that title makes me think of The Rag Trade, a sitcom even older than ’73. And listen to the theme music – Bring Me Sunshine, the song which Mike and Bernie Winters made their own (just checking you’re paying attention; it was of course Cheech & Chong). But in fact The Job Lot has a contemporary look (so long as you don’t think that jittery Office-esque camerawork is getting quite dated) and an apt setting given these times (a job centre).
In the finest ITV traditions, this show has plucked talent from successful comedies (Sarah Hadland from Miranda, Russell Tovey from Him & Her) and tried to create a new winning team. It’s a formula borrowed from football but it doesn’t always work at Chelsea and Manchester City and it doesn’t always work on telly. The Job Lot isn’t bad, just a bit predictable. There’s the neurotic boss, the punctilious tyrant, the sweet old bat, the chancer running his own business in work-time and the bright but demotivated lad who perks up when the mini-skirted temp arrives. Actually, reminding myself of the characters has made me think I should give this another look. I’d do the same for Vicious but in its case would require some ’73-style inducement, such as a year’s supply of Creamola Foam (raspberry flavour).
In ’73 Dave Allen was at the top of his game as TV’s most controversial comedian. “He just sat there, beautifully Irish, and told the most outrageous jokes,” said Steven Berkoff in Dave Allen: God’s Own Comedian. My mother, who fancied him, would second that. From the generation of comics inspired by him, Kevin Day said: “As a kid I didn’t understand his jokes but I really enjoyed seeing my parents laugh at them.” I’d second that; just Allen in his chair was exciting. Look, he’s drinking whisky! Now he’s brushing fag-ash from his sleeves as casually as he’d attack organised religion! But what happened to the top half of that finger?…
This was a fine tribute to the master of the quiet, laid-back, furious monologue who died in 2005 and is rarely reshown, though this was his doing. I knew nothing of his early shows and their ridiculous stunts, so footage of Allen in a submerged car was almost as thrilling as him in his chair.
There was an amazing postscript to that one, with a Glasgow family regularly writing him their grateful thanks. An outing to Ayr almost ended in tragedy when their car slipped into the sea. The boy trapped inside calmly waited until it filled with water before opening the door, just like he’d seen Allen do. «