Television comedy: Nice situations; shame about the comedy

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The Independent Culture
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.