More than one foot in the grave

Sitcoms: Birds of a Feather BBC1 Men Behaving Badly BBC1 Ted and Ralph BBC2
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As every good TV scheduler knows, Christmas is all about tradition. We're not expecting to be challenged. We don't want to have to digest obscure new ideas when we're already digesting mince pies. Give us a Bond film, The Queen's Speech and a sitcom special and we'll give you the highest ratings you get all year. In fact, we can do without James Bond and the Queen. Last Christmas Men Behaving Badly had 16.34 million viewers, second only to EastEnders over the period. One Foot in the Grave, The Vicar of Dibley and Birds of a Feather were all in the top 10. Beat that, Your Majesty.

It's important that these sitcom specials should be constructed along traditional lines themselves. To illustrate this, let us turn to Birds of a Feather. Short of changing its name to Turkeys of a Feather, the programme ticked off every item on the Christmas list. First, it was 10 minutes longer than a normal episode, which is the least we require. After the effort of cooking and/or eating a roast dinner, no one fancies the exertion of switching channels every half an hour. Second, it was based on a trip to a foreign country, in this case Ireland. Third, it had a seasonal theme - a birth in a stable, no less. And, as extra stocking fillers, there were some long-lost relatives and the reading of a will. Who says the old ways are dying out?

The components weren't quite assembled with Seinfeldian neatness. Ireland had nothing but a pub, a horse, some fields, some dancing, three battling brothers and a colourful priest, which is taking tradition a bit too far. And once you'd spotted that one character was nine-months pregnant and that the priest was on the look-out for visions of Jesus and Mary, the ending was not what you'd call a twist. Still, it was quite funny and good-hearted and Pauline Quirke can get a laugh out of the way she says "begorrah". Perfect if taken in the right spirit, or preferably with the right spirit.

In Men Behaving Badly, Gary and Tony never watch TV unless they're holding cans of Fosters, and this is fast becoming the only way to enjoy watching them. The programme is looking old and tired. So are the actors. Neil Morrissey has lost his 1970s footballer's haircut at long last, but his face is haggard. Lesley Ash's face might be too, but it's impossible to tell beneath the layers of clown's make-up, which are, unfortunately, the only funny thing about her. It didn't matter that the female characters were underwritten when they were simply the blokes' enigmatic foils. Now that they're being treated as stars - they've even joined in the dancing- around-the-sitting-room credit sequence - they're simply an irritation. The last time I checked, the series hadn't been renamed Women Behaving Themselves.

The problem of the actors' advancing age is exacerbated by the fact that they have to act as if they're very young. In Christmas Day's episode, Gary talked about sperm with the disgusted half-comprehension of a six- year-old being asked what the word means on a game show. Tony, meanwhile, was so naive that he believed Debs might have her leg amputated because she sprained her ankle when she fell off a swing. Mind you, she did get several days in hospital out of it, so it's no wonder he's confused.

As Tony emptied an ashtray by inverting the table it's inexplicably glued to, and John Thomson's barman confused the words karaoke and hara-kiri, you have to conclude that Men Behaving Badly has lost all contact with reality. It was once a sly, sharp sitcom about two likely lads who were a few years past student age, but had yet to grow out of the relatively innocent pleasures of getting drunk and chatting up the neighbour. Launching a thousand punning headlines and a thousand more articles about New Laddism - not that I hold that against it - it had its finger right on the zeitgeist. Everyone you knew knew someone who was just like Gary and Tony. Years later, the Men are lined and greying and moving in with their girlfriends, while their mental age is diminishing so quickly that if there's another series they'll have lost the power of speech by the end of it. If you knew someone like them now, you'd move house.

More importantly, Men Behaving Badly failed as a Christmas special on all counts except extra length. There are three 45-minute episodes being shown: one on Christmas Day, one on Boxing Day and one tomorrow. In the first part, this larger canvas was left mostly blank. It was just a normal episode, padded out with a long, long, laughless karaoke session and lots of material about masturbation which was, as a friend of mine put it, rather near the knuckle for Christmas viewing. I suppose the third episode could finish with Dorothy's giving birth in a stable, but some viewers may not stick with it until then.

A better bet is tonight's Ted and Ralph, not a sitcom special per se, but a spin-off film from The Fast Show, starring and written by Paul Whitehouse and Charlie Higson. "Ted and Ralph" was always the slowest sketch on The Fast Show and the one least reliant on catchphrases. A study of a repressed aristocrat who is deeply, inarticulately in love with his aged, mutton- chopped odd-job man, there were always acres and acres of subtext waiting to be mined. Tonight the characters have an hour to themselves. While staying true to the spirit of the original sketches, the film goes into Ted and Ralph's history and psychology, introduces an Ealing comedy-style plot, and still has time left for numerous jokes about people falling over.

Other actors and characters from The Fast Show turn up, giving it a festive, Two Ronnies feel, and there are guest appearances by Richard Wilson, Richard Griffiths, Gina Bellman and Kathy Burke as Ted's wife. (Didn't they kill her off in one of The Fast Show sketches? Anal, me?) And at the centre are Whitehouse, a chameleon genius, and Higson, presenter of this year's exquisite movie show, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and a master of standing awkwardly, face set in a rictus of upper-class embarrassment. Ted and Ralph is as moving as it is funny. Ho ho ho!