This article was originally published in The Scotsman on Saturday 24th November.
Sunday, Channel 4, 10pm
WHY POVERTY? STORYVILLE: GIVE US THE MONEY
Sunday, BBC4, 9pm
WHY POVERTY? STORYVILLE: STEALING AFRICA
Monday, BBC4, 10pm
WHY POVERTY? STORYVILLE: PARK AVENUE - MONEY, POWER AND THE AMERICAN DREAM
Tuesday, BBC4, 10pm
Unless you're the sort of person who cracks up at the mere sight of Micky Flanagan, the clinically housebound and gypsies, Channel 4, 30 years young this year, is no longer synonymous with comedy of quality and distinction. Indeed, were it not for prolific scriptwriting duo Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, they couldn't honestly boast any good comedy at all.
So it's little wonder that PEEP SHOW, which begins its eighth series this week, is by far the channel's longest running sitcom. While it could never claim to be much of a ratings winner, this black farce about a pair of co-dependent thirty-something losers has attracted a loyal cult and consistent critical acclaim.
Winner of numerous awards, it is, alongside Armstrong and Bain's enjoyable student comedy Fresh Meat, Channel 4's only reliable source of mirth. And while it's to their credit that they've stuck with it for so long, you get the sense of them gratefully clinging on to it for dear life, in the eager hope of deflecting attention from their otherwise moribund cache.
So here it is, back again, in its new Sunday evening, post-Homeland slot, presumably in the further hope of picking up new viewers in need of a laugh after an hour of teeth-clenched suspense. Not that that strategy really worked in the case of recently departed sitcom Friday Night Dinner (it's got Friday in the title, for God's sake, it shouldn't be shown on a Sunday), but I suppose it's worth another punt.
For those of you new to the Peep Show universe, the premise couldn't be simpler. Portrayed respectively by comedy duo David Mitchell and Robert Webb, Mark and Jeremy are former student chums who, despite having practically nothing in common, have somehow found themselves sharing a flat well into adulthood.
In classic odd couple style, Mark is fastidious, square and neurotic, while Jeremy lives a feckless, irresponsible lifestyle fuelled by soft drugs and the erroneous belief that he will one day be recognised as a talented musician. They don't particularly like each other; indeed, their only fleeting joy in life comes from petty one-upmanship. But, like so many sitcom couplings before them, in a perverse way they need each other. Their strained mutual dependency is probably preferable to the terror of forming a normal relationship in a functioning society that neither feels comfortable in.
Distinctively filmed from each character's subjective point of view, and peppered with inner monologues which often provide the biggest laughs, Peep Show is a comedy of anxiety and discomfort. But unlike most post-The Office shows in that vein, it is at its heart a traditional British sitcom full of sharp, funny dialogue and deft comic performances.
So that's yer Peep Show.
As series eight begins, Mark is finally on the verge of kicking Jeremy out, in the hope of achieving the hitherto unimaginable feat of living conventionally with his girlfriend, Dobby. Typically, however, Jeremy is dragging his heels and Dobby seems more concerned with looking after her sick friend – and one of Mark's many nemeses – Gerrard. In a desperate attempt to oust Jeremy – and partly for his own amusement – Mark pays for him to take a potentially life-healing course of therapy, with inevitably ridiculous and far-reaching results.
As a Peep Show fan, I wouldn't rate this as one of the strongest episodes, but it certainly doesn't signify a drastic drop in quality. Indeed, episode three of this series, in which the team go paint-balling, is up among its best in a while. But its weirdly comforting having these spiteful, awful idiots back in one's life for a while. And if you're new to the show, it may well mark the start of a beautiful relationship.
An earth-quaking shift in tone now as we enter BBC4's new Why Poverty? season, consisting of several Storyville documentaries in which the BBC, together with over 70 broadcasters around the world, probe into the shameful issue of global poverty.
Bono and Bob Geldof, who despite their best efforts have so far failed to make poverty history as promised, are the subject of GIVE US THE MONEY, which examines their epic campaign to bring aid to Africa. Commendably even-handed, it features several dissenting voices who argue that, despite their undoubted sincerity, these messianic musicians have actually achieved more harm than good, although Bono and Bob themselves – both on self-deprecating and, yes, likeable form throughout – unsurprisingly beg to differ. It's a thought-provoking rumination on the moral complexities of charity and the cult of celebrity.
Preview copies of STEALING AFRICA were unavailable at the time of writing, but it promises to uncover the tax avoidance schemes employed by western multinationals operating in poverty-stricken Zambia. It sounds like the kind of thing to make you despair of the human race.
Similar selfishness abounds in PARK AVENUE: MONEY, POWER AND THE AMERICAN DREAM, a despairing film contrasting the game-rigged comfort of New York's wealthiest residents with the hopeless poverty of the South Bronx neighbourhoods which lie just ten minutes away. Capitalism, eh? It's a million laughs.