New chapter for sublime comedy

The Carrot or the Stick

Channel 4

Black Books

Channel 4

Trouble at the Top


Our Daughter Holly - A Tonight Special


The Carrot or the Stick came to an end with the Sticks on top. The Carrots were chuffed at being beaten. "That was the best feeling in the world," said one. Major Jolly, the Carrots’ trainer and inspiration was impressed his feckless no-hopers had gelled as a team. But they hadn’t stuck it as well as the sticks, who had shown their opponents where to stick it.

In the final contest, climbing mountains to rescue comrades who had been kidnapped, the Sticks had the boon of an extra man - since the Carrots’ strong man damaged a leg just 24 hours before the "day of reckoning". The end was a foregone con-clusion. So, it’s official, the browbeaten Sticks, who were punished for misdemeanours, have shown that negative motivation produces winners.

Those who doubt this now proven truth should have watched Black Books, the third series of which kicked off with the psychological savaging of the hirsute, pathetic Manny (Bill Bailey underplaying beautifully). Manny, the bookshop assistant to crazy, dishevelled Bernard, his tormentor, has taken his pathos and his presence next door to rivals Goliath Books - which means that Bernard, by knocking a hole in the wall, can still keep him under surveillance - and thus make remarks of comic snideness about Manny’s creepy "Judas wiggle".

But Manny has simply leapt from the frying pan to the fire and acquired a new bully to keep him oppressed - the Goliath manager, the prim Evan who starches his rectum, gleams with menace and speaks friendly lines with a hiss. Simon Pegg almost stole the show in the role, fronting his bunch of clone assistants in pastel shirts and Nazi hairdos, serving customers with books as though they were writs. The writers should nurture Evan. Already memorable, he has comic possibilities that could render him unforgettable and deliciously, supernaturally grotesque.

Black Books is Men Behaving Badly meets Father Ted, with the brain-blitzed Bernard as Father Jack, dining on slug pellets, drinking oven cleaner and picking fungi from his hair while yelling abuse at the hapless Manny and slagging off Fran, the duo’s girl Friday. The reason he has to yell so loud is to do with the laughter track, an intrusive, redundant yahoo that gets turned up with ridiculous frequency and resembles a pack of hyenas out on a stag night - devouring a stag. Black Books doesn’t need this kind of help to cue the audience’s response. It is Kafka on helium. Dire indeed, and unassuaged.

A gentler concoction, bitter-sweet and full of humanity writ small, was the stuff of Trouble at the Top which examined the case of Terry de Havilland, a gifted shoe-designer who reckoned he’d been ripped off by the House of Prada. We saw Terry’s shoes from the 1970s side by side with their Mui Mui counterparts of today. Call me a heel without a soul if the shoes weren’t clones. But Terry rose above this adversity to triumph and marry Liz his business partner.

Terry was underselling his talent, giving his gorgeous little colour-puffs of footwear away to celebs who could well have afforded to pay him handsomely for his trouble. And yet he looked sanguine, unbothered, fulfilled. A lesson in Zen and the art of shoe maintenance. He smiled. "I’m the rock ‘n’ roll cobbler," he said disarmingly. High as a mystic maharishi; well healed to boot.

As part of the healing process perhaps came Our Daughter Holly - a Tonight Special. Ninety minutes without a pause for commercial breaks (a mark of ITV’s respect for the nature of the content), it was gripping. Already we’d followed the Wells family’s terrible nightmare, horror and sorrow as it unfolded right from August 2002 when Holly and Jessica had gone missing. Jessica’s parents, the Chapman family, did not appear. Perhaps they had chosen to play no part. But the fact that the programme was made will impinge on their daily lives - if only briefly. Frequent mentions of "the girls" merely reinforced the double horror of this story.

"We had this most extra-ordinary daughter," said Kevin Wells. "I didn’t want that to be forgotten." Was this the broadcast’s justification? It was intrusive, reaching the sanctum of private sorrow. You could object to it as prurient, as nurturing the viewing public’s morbid curiosity. Which it did. But, that being said, you had the option - at any juncture - to press the off switch.

Something, alas, the families involved can never do.