review

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The Independent Culture
The chief truism of sitcom-land is that things always develop in a second series. Face off those disastrous ratings and vitriolic reviews, runs this theory, commission another run and watch the characters and gags blossom into a trouser-dampening laugh-fest. That's what they do in America, the land of the great sitcom. And without such due perseverance, Blackadder, Fawlty Towers and Men Behaving Badly would all have withered long before they were rounded enough to enter the national consciousness.

This can be the only explanation for the second series of Next of Kin (BBC1), a programme which, had the critical antennae been on full beam, would never have made it to a first. In a sense you can see the rationale. Despite failing to raise a single titter in its first incarnation, the situation in Next of Kin is not at all bad. Two grandparents - Penelope Keith and William Gaunt - have their cosy world of silver-consumerism shattered, when they find themselves inheriting their grandchildren after the death of the children's parents. All sorts of double generation- gap mirth and misunderstandings might potentially ensue from this: throw enough of them at the wall, is presumably the theory, and some might, given a prevailing wind and a pre-wash of wallpaper paste, stick.

Unfortunately the central weakness of the Next of Kin enterprise remains intact: the script. It is, and you might consider this to be an important drawback in a comedy, about as funny as a John Major speech. Here is an example of a joke from last night's episode:

"You never got on with the children."

"Everyone says I was suffering from post-natal depression."

"It lasted 30 years."

Now why is this considered funny? Maybe it was simply the delivery - Keith and Gaunt are hardly the Vic and Bob of the third age - but you suspect a combination of John Cleese and Groucho Marx would have failed to raise a titter with that one. It was intended as a joke, though, because the studio audience roared with laughter just after it was delivered. But then you had to have doubts about their critical facilities when they fell into near-fatal spasms of mirth at this exchange:

"Know anything about locusts, Tom?"

"Yeah, my brother had a Locust Elan."

What do they give them at BBC hospitality? An ounce of Lebanese Black on arrival? The inability to turn a gag is not the only problem of the script. Last night's plot relied on two twists which were absurd. Firstly Penelope Keith read her grand-daughter's diary and discovered that she had forgotten the girl's birthday. Consumed with guilt, she organises a belated party, at which the glum granddaughter reveals that it isn't her birthday for three months - she only put that in her diary to see if her grandmother was sneaky enough to read it. This simply does not work because humour generally arises from a twist of the possible not the impossible. And what granny in the known universe has ever got her granddaughter's birthday wrong by three months?

Worse was the business about the locust. Penelope Keith was obliged to run up a costume for their youngest charge, who was playing an insect in a school play based on the plagues of Egypt (she came up with an outfit which facilitated a humourless sight gag involving a pair of those bouncy eye-ball joke spectacles). As you watched this farrago unfold, it made you wonder at the laziness of the writing. The script-writer had plainly been nowhere near a primary school in the last 20 years. A school play based on the King James Bible? Round our way it's all Ramadan and Caribbean folk yarns. Now Penelope Keith preparing a costume for a Diwali-based assembly, you can't help feeling, might have produced a couple of laughs.

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