REVIEW / Ordinary situations make for ordinary comedy

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The Independent Culture
HALFWAY through the first episode of the new series of 2 Point 4 Children (BBC 1), Gary Olsen, marooned as a lame-brain tub of a sitcom father called Ben, announced that he had bought a fancy new shirt at a car boot sale.

'Genuine Ralph Lauren,' he says, pointing proudly at a familiar-looking horse logo on his chest. 'Only two quid.'

'Isn't the horse supposed to have four legs?' says Belinda Lang, as his wife Bill (Bill and Ben, tee hee).

This was a double-whammy moment: a joke about counterfeiting which was itself a counterfeit joke. It looked and sounded just like a joke, it was paced and timed just like a joke, but it couldn't have been the real thing because it wasn't funny.

Indeed, counterfeiting is what 2 Point 4 Children is all about. In its obsessive and ultimately self-defeating attempt to replicate the most successful formulaic elements of US television, the BBC passes this programme off as the British Roseanne. The strength of Roseanne Arnold's wonderful American sitcom is that it deals with the ordinary problems of an ordinary family in an ordinary home through the application of a far from ordinary comic rigour. As the title would imply, in the case of 2 Point 4 Children ordinary has been confused with average: merely making the husband a slob doesn't mean you have a genuine Roseanne in your hands.

Worse, Andrew Marshall, 2 Point 4 Children's scriptwriter, appears to labour under the belief that by grafting a few stock comedy moments on to his parade of the ordinary he can pass the thing off as a fully integrated sitcom. Thus, woven into the plot of last night's first episode of the new series were a squadron of escaped cockroaches, a 10ft inflatable Pope and a gag involving the unintentional inhalation of helium. In the hands of a seasoned surrealist, John Cleese perhaps, these ingredients might have been whipped into an anarchic riot. Instead, it was unrelentingly average.

Rather than writing scripts in the manner of a child ordering at the comedy pick-and-mix counter ('I'll have one inflatable Pope gag, please, and half a dozen cockroaches'), Andrew Marshall might do worse than sit in front of The Russ Abbot Show (ITV) for a tip or two.

Abbot is the genuine article: a funny man. His idiot look and Tommy Cooper gangle gait are, in themselves, sufficient to raise more laughs in 10 minutes than 2 Point 4 Children could muster in a series. Better still, for this new vehicle Abbot has added more to his armoury: a sketch-writer with a firm grasp of the absurd (a quality apparently shared by his wig-maker).

There were moments of rare delight in Abbot's first show - a waiter mishearing a couple arguing about divorce in a restaurant ('I want custody,' says the wife, and he gives her custard); a middle- aged couple in bed listening to the shipping forecast and a Force 10 nor'-westerly breaking out over the headboard; and the sticky goings on at the head office of Velcro. These were performed with a vulgar, slap-stick panache Eric Morecambe would have been pushed to match. They were also - and this was no coincidence - the sketches where Abbot remained the silent clown.

When he opened his mouth, things tended to be less successful. The attempt at replacing his old stable of characters (Basildon Bond, the Biggles airman) with others of a more modern, Harry Enfield style (a thick vicar, a double entendre-encumbered children's show) did not stand up to close examination. That was something Abbot could have learned from 2 Point 4 Children: copy someone else's trademark and it falls apart after two washes.