Television comedy: Nice situations; shame about the comedy

Gimme Gimme Gimme

BBC2 The League of Gentlemen BBC2

On TFI Friday the week before last, Chris Evans asked Kathy Burke about her new sitcom, . Her reply was unique in the annals of programme-plugging. "The first episode's a bit dodgy," she said, "but stick with it." It was difficult to know whether to be enchanted by her honesty or appalled. This was a big-league series she was talking about: a heavily publicised Friday-night comedy, in a time slot that puts it head-to-head with Friends. If its own star recognised that the opening instalment was a turn-off, maybe BBC2 should have broadcast repeats of Shooting Stars for a few weeks while they worked on making it a bit less dodgy.

Still, when Kathy Burke asks you to stick with something, you do as you're told. Honoured at Cannes for her performance in Nil By Mouth, but better known for upstaging Harry Enfield on a regular basis as Waynetta Slob and Perry the teenager, Burke would be on the shortlist if the British public were nominating candidates for sainthood. Another reason for giving giving giving the benefit of the doubt is that it's scripted by Jonathan Harvey, writer of the tremendous Beautiful Thing. Consequently, I've stuck with the show now for three episodes, two of which have been on TV already, and one that's on next Friday. Dodginess, I'm afraid to say, is still very much in evidence.

The common ground between Beautiful Thing's characters and Burke's roles is that they're utterly believable and utterly loveable, which makes 's most obvious failing a mystery: it's proud of how unbelievable and unloveable its protagonists are. Burke and James Dreyfus - the stretchy- faced Constable Goody in The Thin Blue Line - play two flatmates, Linda and Tom. He is a bitter, out-of-work actor; she is a deluded, sex-mad slattern in white-framed Janet Street Porter specs and a red wig of the type usually worn by Scottish football fans under a tam-o'-shanter. Beyond that, their personae are as two-dimensional as the animated versions we see over the credits. Linda and Tom are supposed to follow the great British sitcom tradition of trapped characters who can't stand each other, but can't live without each other, either; a tradition that runs from Steptoe and Son and Rising Damp to Red Dwarf and Father Ted. But in these examples, even the certifiable priests and space-bound robots had enough consistency and depth to let us suspend our disbelief. Burke and Dreyfus just reheat Waynetta and Goody and serve them with extra ham.

The series is set in a fantasy world in which your actions have no consequences. You can shout abuse at the neighbours, and they don't hear a word of it. Tom and Linda - "the ginger Jerry Hall", as she calls herself - can beat each other up, and the violence is as damaging as it is in a Tom and Jerry cartoon. It's true that The Young Ones, which is celebrated in tonight's History of Alternative Comedy, had a similarly cartoony approach, but it extended this to talking hamsters, exploding bricks and Motorhead putting on a concert in the living room. doesn't fill its reality gap with anything. Besides, The Young Ones had lots of jokes. is drastically punchline-deficient, and a fair percentage of the ones it does have are either "shut up", "you bitch" or "Shut up, you bitch".

We're left with the boast that is the first Britcom to have a homosexual leading character - assuming you don't count Julian Clary's meta-sitcom, Terry and Julian. Several admiring newspaper articles have asserted that, in this sense, the series sees Britain catching up with America, home of Ellen and Spin City. I'd disagree. Unlike the Americans, we've long been used to camp comedy. For decades, our sitcoms have featured men who are obviously gay, even if their love has dared not speak its name. When we finally have a sitcom character who is openly gay, there is scarcely any difference. Is Tom really a step forward? So far on , he hasn't got near another gay men, so his sexuality has meant nothing more than the usual campness. He may as well be John Inman in Are You Being Served? Melvyn Hayes in It Ain't Half Hot, Mum or, let's face it, James Dreyfus in The Thin Blue Line.

There was no chance of anyone in The League of Gentlemen apologising for its first episode. The League is not just the name of a new series, but of the sketch troupe behind it. They won the Perrier Award in 1997, so if they'd wanted, they could have been on TV long before now. Learning from the mistakes of previous Fringe discoveries, however, they took their time, and tinkered with their diabolical formula until it was perfect.

The Gents' masterstroke was to intertwine their sketches and locate them all in the same rural village-from-Hell, Royston Vasey, a creepier twin town of Father Ted's Craggy Island. Pillar boxes thank you for posting letters, funeral flowers spell out "bastard", and the villagers are, to varying degrees, highly dangerous psychopaths. The local shop (named "Local Shop") is run by two Quasimodo-lookalikes who throw a hiker on a bonfire for the crime of picking up a snow globe. A boy visits his toad-loving, urine-drinking aunt and uncle. "You'll have your own WC," he is told, grandly, "into which we do not pass solids." All of the characters - male, female, and, in the case of Babs the transsexual cabby, both - are beautifully acted by three expertly made-up men who remind us what Burke and Dreyfus have temporarily forgotten. Comic characterisations can be horrifically over-the-top and subtly nuanced at the same time.

The Royston Vasey concept wouldn't be half as effective if the programme didn't makes most British films look even cheaper than they are. With its long tracking shots and its drizzly exteriors, the programme creates a town that is all the more disturbing for being a real place, not a harshly lit TV-sketch-zone. Unless there was an episode of Last of the Summer Wine directed by David Lynch that I don't know about, The League of Gentlemen is in a televisual league of its own.

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence