Slap 'n' tickle

A laugh a minute? That's what you'd expect from Channel 4's second festival of sitcom. Jasper Rees was poised with his stopwatch
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The Independent Culture
Commissioning new sitcoms is a notoriously imprecise science. The first episode, and sometimes the first series, finds a sitcom at its least sure-footed. Keen to tell you all about itself, it tends to behave out of character, gabbling nervously and exaggerating every gesture. It might never find its feet, but you can rarely tell from one half-hour introduction. My own personal hostage to fortune in these pages was to have a sense of humour bypass when reviewing Father Ted. But then episode one wasn't that funny.

The second Channel 4 Sitcom Festival, at London's Riverside Studios, delivered its inevitable quota of Christmas dinners. Of the nine half- hour plays performed in weekly chunks of three, there was one generous helping of turkey a week. First up was Kerouac by Marcy Kahan, in which a woman takes permanently to her bed to lead a "rich interior life", causing panic waves among her pals. Next week brought The Magnificent Andersons by David Upsher and Diana Fox, about a bickering husband-and-wife comedy duo. Last, and probably least, there was The Kidney Club by Phil Nice and Tony Haase, which unites three men on a hospital ward who have nothing in common but their gallstones. Plus their tendency to be resoundingly unfunny.

In each instance the feebleness of the situation is easily surpassed by the paucity of the comedy. There's a myth that it ultimately matters what a sitcom is about: Drop the Dead Donkey, Channel 4's other undisputed triumph, found its feet after discovering that up-to-date jokes about the news were less pivotal in the comedy than the warfare between the characters. You could theoretically do a funny show about two bickering comedians, but it just didn't happen here.

Of the better plays, it's as well to distinguish between those that worked well as plays and others that met the basic demands of sitcom. In a play, events take place which irrepressibly alter the relationship between the characters. Whatever happens in a sitcom, you always go back to square one at the start of a fresh episode; the idea of stasis is built into the design. Hence, from the final week, there was louder applause for Slap! than The Dentons, but only one of them could ever grow legs as a sitcom.

Slap! by Emmerdale scribbler Tim Dynevor, was an amiable, eccentric play full of well-observed comedy about a bank teller and a make-up girl who edge towards romance, nudged by their more libidinous sidekicks. (Politically incorrect line of the festival: "I'm going for a slash. I shouldn't really, though: the doctor says I mustn't lift anything heavy.") By the conclusion of Slap!, the play has nowhere else to go, unlike Merle Nygate's The Dentons, about a divorced father whose fears for his drug-dealing son and soap junkie daughter contaminate his relationship with his new girlfriend. Situation wise, The Dentons may play safe, but the central joke is renewable.

Even if they haven't a hope of getting the green light, one or two of the turkeys deserve a pat on the back for understanding at least this requirement. At the end of The Kidney Club, the trio discharge themselves from hospital and, despite mutual antipathy, clearly plan to meet up again. In Last Legs, by Lenny Barker and Paul Shearer, a bluff businessman strings his greedy sons along that he's about to croak. Like In Exile, Tunde Babalola's cheerful piece about a bombastic African dictator exiled to a flat in London, the idea has potential for endless perpetuation.

If any of these pilots worked at all, it was despite a variety of sizeable obstacles strewn in their path. Like most sitcoms, they were performed in front of a live audience, but not one participating in the thrill of making television. With no cameras or microphones to give them that buzz, there was an unspoken look of "OK, so impress me" about the knowing, celeb- strewn crowd the festival attracted.

And then there's the acting. Part of the pleasure of sitcom comes from watching an actor sink into a role as if into a comfy old sofa. No chance of that here, with most of the versatile cast being invited to sink into as many as five sofas at once. Inevitably, even the old sitcom pros like Robert Bathurst (Joking Apart) and Pauline McLynn (Father Ted) were better suited to some parts than others. Bug-eyed all-rounder Paul Shearer, for example, was stronger as the dad in The Dentons and the drippy son and heir in Last Legs than he was in The Kidney Club. Oddly, although he co-wrote Last Legs, he didn't embody quite the right degree of paranoia to play a joke writer in The Magnificent Andersons.

Probably the most spirited comedy of the entire festival came in Bleeding Hearts, by Andy Riley and Kevin Cecil. Set in a charity specialising in overseas aid, the potential for sending up society's good intentions was ruthlessly exploited. Eluned Hawkins, playing the charity's wonderfully named co-ordinator Moon, conveyed just the right amount of spinelessness to be funny and still be almost believable. You can see this script making the distance: Riley and Cecil are wholesale suppliers of gags to the more audacious comedy shows Friday Night Armistice and Jack and Jeremy's Real Lives. Plainly they're better qualified to write the surprising and left- field sitcom that Channel 4 goes in for than most of their peers gathered here. In Exile, which brought a lonely performance from Patrice Naiambana as the exiled dictator, is probably the closest contender.

Other shows are, if not non-starters, then too conventional for Channel 4. You could see The Dentons on BBC1, and Last Legs on ITV, where the quality threshold for sitcom is so much lower. The comforting message that writers will take away from the festival is that celebrity is no guarantee of ability. Basic Instincts, about cavemen who have discovered political correctness, was one of weaker contributions, and it was directed by Nigel Planer and written by Patrick Barlow. In sitcom, however much you've been round the block you still end up at square one.