TELEVISION / And the outlook: more clouds: Lucy Tuck reviews Every Silver Lining, Simon Block's sitcom debut

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There is a school of thought which holds that wit has no place in situation comedy; that what the genre and its audience demand is not verbal inventiveness but the comfort of cliche, stereotype and stock situations - a dependable and unchallenging half an hour of bossy wives, harassed husbands and precocious children, folk wisdoms and bawdy asides.

Simon Block, who, according to his curriculum vitae has 'degrees in art, psychology, and criminology', is the author of Every Silver Lining, the new comedy series that began on BBC1 last night. And though he is described in the programme's publicity notes as being both young and new to television, he is not innocent of the conventions of sitcom.

The Silvers, Nathaniel (Andrew Sachs) and Shirley (Frances de la Tour), run the Silver Diner, a cafe in an inner-city alley. She is tall and does all the work, he is small and plays chess or gazes at his aquarium; she wears a fluffy pastel blue sweater appliqued with grey leaves that writhe about her fluffy blue body, he wears a sludge-coloured cardigan. There are two waiters in ox-blood jackets with black lapels, and almost no customers; when these do show up they keep their coats and hats on when they eat. All of this is given, none of it remarked upon.

She says she hasn't had a holiday for 18 years, he says it has taken him 18 years to build up his collection of tropical fish and now they are dying because of a virus in the filtration system. They have a daughter who teases her mother's hair between her fingers until Shirley snaps, 'Enough with the hair]'

Every Silver Lining is not without art: there are rhymes and repetitions and metaphors. Cold fish Nathaniel cannot keep his exotic fish alive; a goldfish that had been a symbol of inadequacy - an unwelcome gift from an unsuitable date of the Silvers' daughter - is converted into a love token, a thank-you from Shirley to Nathaniel for six rainy days in Broadstairs.

But whatever oddness the situation enjoys is flattened by the weight of sitcom stereotype. Shirley descends from a long line of suffocating wives (Peggy Mount, Yootha Joyce, Patricia Routledge), emasculating their husbands with their desire for improvement. Pathetically incapable of almost any manly act, Nathaniel, whom Shirley calls 'my husband, the 10- year-old', is cousin in oppression to every henpecked husband from George Formby, to Ronnie Corbett, to Clive Swift.

Both stars have been in previous sitcom smashes - Frances de la Tour as Miss Jones in Rising Damp, Andrew Sachs as Manuel in Fawlty Towers - but then neither of them were leads and nor, despite the billing, are they now, quite. Frances de la Tour's voice is as thrilling as ever - hoarse and fluting, suggesting a passionate sophistication denied by Shirley's turquoise velour leisure suit. Sachs' voice, too, is attractive but his Nathaniel is so impotent, so creepily car-coated, that rarely has the sex war seemed as embarrassingly unbalanced, so purely a form of sentimental torture.

Every Silver Lining is a comedy set in an antique fantasy of Britain, where city people wear hats and go on holidays to Broadstairs, and a silver lining never comes unless it is followed by clouds, tears and dead fish.

Did people at the BBC sit at screenings and laugh?

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