TELEVISION / Gagged and bound: Giles Smith reviews Conjugal Rites

A LOT of people say situation comedy is close to death, or at least condemned to repeat the same gags in the same settings until the last viewer finally switches channels. But just occasionally, a new sitcom comes along that puts an entirely new spin on old material, works within the conventions but subtly re-arranges them, finds an unseen path across apparently well-travelled ground and, in the process, entirely revivifies the form.

While we're waiting, though, here's Conjugal Rites (ITV), a new sitcom so slavish in its devotion to old sitcoms that it could well have been conceived, written and designed by parrots. Gen and Barry wake up on their anniversary and look back across 21 years of marriage, simultaneously visiting more than 30 years of low-grade sitcom jokes and related phenomena.

Why is it that all sitcom characters sleep with their heads entirely covered by the duvet? And how come, when woken, their first reaction is to stick a lone arm out from under the covers and grope around for the phone / alarm clock / wife's anniversary present, instead of just sitting up, like ordinary people? These were mysteries which Conjugal Rites was too busy celebrating to solve.

Gen and Barry have one of those tediously combative relationships which survive in sitcoms, but which would, if transposed to real life, end in murder well short of any 21st anniversary. When they attempt sex, Barry's back plays him up. 'Sometimes I get sick of your back,' says Gen. 'Sometimes I get sick of your front,' quips Barry. Laugh? Not once.

Meanwhile on BBC 1, The Riff Raff Element confidently strode into its third week. It's up against Cheers and Roseanne in the schedules, which is not a fate you would wish upon any programme, but it has enough wit to fight itself out of a spot even as tight as that one. The big and easy theme is class-distinction (the haves at the Hall, the have-nots in the house), but each of the characters has been worked at in detail, so what you hear is more than just the din of brassy stereotypes clashing together. Best of all, the script is not afraid to put the squeeze on. 'You're a scrap of tinsel, Carmen . . . cute, but no real class.'

Ronald Pickup plays Roger, 'his nibs', a man who last used his facial muscles during the 1930s. It wasn't a good week for Roger. First his talk on the foreign office to the sixth-form at his old school was scantily-attended. (It clashed with a slide show on another old boy's experiences as a missionary among the brothels of Bangkok.) And then he got a letter retiring him. His face filled the screen at this key dramatic point, and the line was a long time coming. 'It is, all things considered, a bit of a blow.' Real class.

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