Saturday, 18 August 2012

Scotsman TV preview: Channel 4's Funny Fortnight

This article was first published in The Scotsman on 18th August 2012.


Days and times vary, Channel 4

Paul Whitelaw

Growing up in the '80s and '90s, I wasn't alone in regarding Channel 4 as home to some of the best and most innovative British comedy. Few, I'm sure, would argue with the likes of The Comic Strip Presents, Saturday/Friday Night Live, Absolutely, Vic Reeves Big Night Out, Father Ted and Brass Eye.

But C4's noble pedigree has, with the honourable exception of the long-running Peep Show, been badly damaged in the last decade. Comedy on 4 is now epitomised by the charmless likes of Jimmy Carr, Alan Carr, Micky Flanagan and Frankie Boyle. And any channel that allows the insufferable Noel Fielding to flourish should be regarded with deep suspicion.

The deterioration of its comedy output is indicative of an overall slide in standards at C4, a sorry state of affairs that its Funny Fortnight season inadvertently illustrates. Boasting over 30 hours of new pilots, one-off specials and numerous repeats of former glories, it does at least offer some glimmers of hope, while at the same time neatly encapsulating everything that's wrong with C4 these days.

The worst offender by far is I'M SPAZTICUS (Sunday to Wednesday, 10:10pm, 10:30pm and 10:35pm), a jaw-droppingly witless and misconceived hidden prank show in which disabled performers humiliate able-bodied members of the public.

Its title – taken from an Ian Dury protest song, but shorn of its original context for maximum shock value – is the least offensive thing about this disaster. What point is it trying to make exactly? That disabled people can be involved in woefully uninspired prank shows too, especially ones that define them solely by their disability? Wow, what a heartening message. Or, seeing as its flustered “victims” are well-meaning innocents, is it saying that able-bodied people will go out of their way to help disabled people no matter how absurd the situation? Well, that's good isn't it?

Only one prank – a spoof vox pops in which members of the public are asked to choose which disability they'd least like to have - could reasonably be taken as pointed satire, although all it really proves is that dim people will partake in any old crock if there's a camera involved. But hasn't Chris Morris already made that point, albeit in a more imaginative way?

This is what C4, hosts of the 2012 Paralympics, regards as inclusiveness: a comedy show starring disabled people in which they're reduced to comedy props. The producers would doubtless pull a Gervais – an unfortunate phrase, but let's not dwell – and argue that it isn't problematic as they're willing participants and in on the joke. But all that proves is that some disabled actors are as desperate for work as able-bodied actors.

Actually, maybe that's the hidden genius of I'm Spazticus. Maybe it's a cleverly subversive comment on how C4 will exploit anyone for profit, whatever their physical ability. And that, when you think about it, actually makes them the most trailblazing equal-opportunities employer in television. All hail C4, defender of minorities!

Still, it's not all thoroughly horrendous. THE FUNCTION ROOM (Sunday, 10:40pm) is a cheerfully traditional and often very funny studio sitcom set in a pub, and starring a host of familiar comedy actors including The Vicar of Dibley's James Fleet, The League of Gentlemen's Reece Shearsmith, The Inbetweeners' Blake Harrison, The Fast Show's Simon Day (once again playing a pub know-it-all) and every-comedy-of-the-last-twenty-years' Kevin Eldon.

The sort of uproariously gag-heavy sitcom that encourages deserved rounds of applause from its studio audience, it's definitely a step in the right direction for C4, and if they have any sense – which they don't – they'll commission a series. 
We really are through the looking glass here, as TOAST OF LONDON (Monday, 10pm) is yet another promising sitcom pilot. Co-written with Father Ted co-creator Arthur Mathews, it's a winningly silly vehicle for Matt Berry from The IT Crowd , and follows a farcical day in the life of a successful West End stage actor.

Yes, it finds the one-note Berry delivering the only performance he can – a bombastic, bawdy, swaggering ham with a voice like vintage brandy - but I can't deny that, with a busily gag-strewn script such as this, he exploits his limited strengths to the full. Not to be outdone, the whole cast – including the great Geoffrey McGivern, last seen in Dead Boss – deliver similarly broad performances, and the whole thing is so relentlessly daft it's hard to resist its rambling charms. More please, C4!

Considerably less impressive is CHANNEL 4 COMEDY PRESENTS: THEM FROM THAT THING (Tuesday and Wednesday, 10pm) an almost entirely mirthless sketch show that wastes a core cast of able comic performers such as Sally Phillips and Fonejacker's Kayvan Novak on weak, strained material (some of which was apparently written by the usually reliable Charlie Brooker).

Its gimmick, such as it is, is casting straight actors such as Bill Paterson and Sean Pertwee in comic roles, but that just comes across as a desperate attempt to give it some identity. This is committee-formed comedy, lacking in singular vision.

Still, at least this season proves that C4 comedy isn't completely dead in the water. It just needs some careful resuscitation.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Scotsman TV Preview: Saturday 4th August 2012

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on 4th August 2012.

Thursday, Channel 4, 10pm

Monday, Channel 4, 11:05pm

Monday, Channel 4, 11:40pm

Paul Whitelaw

I'm sure we can all agree that one of the last things you ever want to hear a local newsreader say is, “STAY INSIDE!” But that's precisely what the good people of Zanesville, Ohio were instructed to do last year, when a sprawling group of wild carnivores, including lions, leopards, tigers and bears, ran amok in their sleepy community.

This formidable menagerie belonged to local nuisance Terry Thompson, a thrill-seeking Vietnam veteran who took advantage of state laws allowing unrestricted ownership of exotic animals. You may recall a recent Louis Theroux documentary in which he visited several, at a push, well-meaning bozos who've figured that the ideal home for huge, proud African lions is in a cramped cage in their garden. The clumsily titled AMERICA'S ANIMAL HOARDER: TERROR AT THE ZOO – TRUE STORIES might be viewed as a nightmarish addendum to that programme, in which the cruelty, madness and dangers of keeping these creatures as pets is taken to its most severe extreme.    

However, despite the serious nature of the incident, this melodramatic account is not without its moments of bizarre humour. The recordings of police radio announcements - “We got a bear on the interstate” etc. - are pure Chris Morris, and the folksy understatement of the locals makes the whole thing feel like a deranged Frank Capra film. I particularly enjoyed the implacable police chief who dryly reveals that he first realised something was wrong after receiving a call from a woman complaining that a camel was eating her property.

And yet, offbeat detours aside, this is an undeniably dispiriting tale in which, despite there being no human casualties, almost all of Thompson's animals ended up dead. The shoot-to-kill tactics of the police and special response unit were heavily criticised at the time, but the programme makes it abundantly clear that none of them took any pleasure in their duties. A shortage of tranquillizer rifles left them with no choice but to massacre these healthy mammals in a deafening hail of bullets that haunts them to this day. One hardened officer can barely get through his recollections without breaking down in tears.

How did Thompson's animals manage to escape? That's a particularly disturbing yet ultimately mysterious twist that I'll leave you to ponder for yourself. But you'll be left in no doubt that it was a tragic accident waiting to happen. And despite the often shoddy and repetitive nature of this relentlessly unsubtle documentary, it maintains interest thanks to the sheer, magnetic strangeness of the central story.

Also, watch out for the most inadvertently hilarious closing caption in the history of documentary filmmaking.

Despite moaning in these very pages recently about the cruel, tasteless mendacity of Channel 4's factual entertainment output, it would be unfair to suggest that everything they do is without merit. The sturdy True Stories strand, for instance, showcases some of the best new documentaries from around the world (not that the aforementioned programme honours that brief), and their Coming Up series is the UK's only ongoing forum for short standalone dramas written and directed by TV newcomers.

Granted, 4 hardly goes out of its way to promote these commendable strands or, in the case of the latter, air them in anything other than graveyard slots, but at least they're out there.

The latest entrant, COMING UP: POSTCODE LOTTERY, is a poignant drama starring the great Con O'Neill as Jed, a conflicted man with terminal cancer who enters – or rather, crashes – into an ambiguous relationship with a fellow patient. Due to being located in the so-called “wrong” catchment area, Jed can't access the medication he so desperately needs, unlike his new friend. But when the situation goes further awry, he takes matters into his own hands in a surprising fashion. It's a slight tale, but beautifully performed by O'Neill and This Is England's Jo Hartley, and it makes its humane political point with calm and certainty.

One of four short films commissioned by Film4 and BBC Films as part of the London 2012 Festival, THE SWIMMER is a poetic, if inscrutable, paean to British culture from acclaimed Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher; Morvern Callar).

Beautifully shot in pristine black and white, it follows a lone swimmer on a wordless, dreamlike and occasionally unsettling odyssey along a vast British river, accompanied only by haunting snippets of dialogue and music from classic British '60s films If..., Billy Liar, The Loneliness of The Long Distance Runner, and The Lord Of The Flies, as well as the stirring melodies of Vaughan Williams and John Barry.

It's an iconoclastic take on the theme of what it means to be British, and I'd be lying if I said I truly understood all of Ramsay's opaque illustrations. But that's not really the point, as it's clearly intended as an artwork to experience rather than fully comprehend. If that sounds like I'm making excuses for it, I should point out that it's richly atmospheric and never boring, and I'm glad that there's still room on Channel 4 for experimental oddities such as this.