Comedy drama: What's less believable than Dr Who?
Sunday 22 November 1998
Last Sunday's episode was the most depressing TV programme I've ever seen, Ricki Lake excepted. Three pairs of smug marrieds in Manchester represented three relationship stages - moving in together, having a baby, juggling a family with a career - and the message, as far as I could tell, was that men and women just don't get on. The series should have been called Cold Hearts.
Top of the cast list is Helen Baxendale, who first beguiled the British public with her head-girlish smile and her fluttery, naturalistic acting when she was the saucy bit of labcoat in Cardiac Arrest. The fact remains, however, that she wouldn't know a punch line if it punched her. She has yet to reveal any hint of comedic ability, which makes it all the more mystifying that she is also currently appearing in Friends as Emily, Rachel's rival to Ross's affections.
In Cold Feet she's called Rachel herself, and she's going out with Adam (James Nesbitt), an idiotic man-child who is supposed to be charming because he's got an Irish accent. His best friend is Pete (John "Jazz Club" Thomson), who is actually quite nice, and is therefore treated with contempt by his wife (Fay Ripley). The final gruesome twosome comprises a caddish businessman and a spouse who despises him because he prefers to read financial reports than bedtime stories. Considering that she employs a nanny, she's hardly one to talk.
Are we supposed to care about these people? The theory, I think, is that we should relate to them, because their lives are as prosaic as our own, and because Cold Feet is a portrait of urban life as it really is in the Nineties. This is another way of saying the writer hasn't bothered with research or imagination. In the arthritically slow first episode, the characters go to DIY stores, go to antenatal classes and go to the pub. And yet, for all the self-absorbed triviality of the drama, it still contrives to be less believable than Dr Who. Take last week's climax. A dad-to-be is so obsessed with being able to drive his wife to hospital that he buys them a mobile phone each. She can call him as soon as her contractions start: it will be their own emergency hotline. But the same man then lends his cellphone to his man-child pal, and forgets to take it back before going golfing the next morning. He also neglects to tell anyone where he's going to be, even though this is his first time on a golf course, so it might have been the sort of thing he'd mention to his wife.
Naturally, he's soon on his way to the hospital, anyway. He heads the wrong way down a one-way street, and immediately - that very second - two motorcycle cops materialise. At this point, the viewer could relax. Anyone who has ever seen a film about a man racing to a maternity ward knew what was going to happen next. In comedyland, the police's main duty is to taxi expectant fathers to hospital.
Having got all that off my chest, I must say that it's possible this episode was designed to make the later ones look better. The preview tapes I've seen indicate that the makers eventually hit on the idea of including some plot and some jokes, and the characters edge towards humanity. Fay Ripley has a range of quirky mannerisms that are more reminiscent of Elaine in Seinfeld than of any other Brit-com woman. Poor old Ross should have gone out with her.
Cold Feet's publicity bumf is especially proud of its split screens and flashbacks, but these effects are nothing compared to the storytelling malarkey that goes into The Young Person's Guide To Becoming a Rock Star. Within any given five minutes you'll get captions, self-deluding narration, camera angles which make the larger-than-life characters appear even larger, and expressionist sets: an Orwellian, tombstone grey DSS office, for instance. OK, so the Guide pilfers brazenly from Trainspotting's box of tricks, but any comedy about a rock band that doesn't copy This Is Spinal Tap, The Commitments or Tutti Frutti is allowed any other source it fancies.
On occasion, the Guide resorts to soap popera cliches. In the next episode, a record exec offers to sign up the band if they sack their rhythm section. This doesn't happen in real life: if it did, Oasis's bassist would be on the dole. But maybe I shouldn't expect realism in the story of a band called Jocks Wa-Hey. The Guide is sexy, stylish and sharp, a Best Of compilation of jokes, twists, colour and gleeful comic characterisations. Two particular greatest hits are Forbes Masson as "Scotland's Mr Music" and Keith Allen's feral A&R man. A video of the series should be on a loop in every tour bus, but don't be put off if you don't know your Ash from your Elastica. The Guide is galvanised at least as much by its love of television as by its love of pop.
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