Television Review

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The Independent Culture
IT'S DIFFICULT to frame praise for The Royle Family (BBC2) which isn't simply a list of lesser sitcoms' flaws. The script even makes the point itself. Apart from the odd foray to the kitchen, the four Royles do nothing but watch the box; the only time you saw the actual television, Birds of a Feather was on. There's no misinterpreting that message; this is a working-class comedy which doesn't rely on anything as vulgar as caricature.

Uniquely, it is funny precisely because you can't quote its jokes. The script has been drained of anything as artificial as gags. Just occasionally comes a line that sounds like an alien invasion from a more conventional sitcom, and it strikes a false note. Jim has discovered from the itemised BT bill that his wife has spent pounds 2.50 phoning the neighbour. "It's a good job she's cured her stutter," he says. In comedy, a stutter is a stunt, and The Royle Family doesn't need to plead that hard for approval.

There's a running joke about the calls someone in the family has been making to Aberdeen. Any other sitcom would have unearthed the culprit by the end of the episode, but a resolution would suggest that life has a plot. And unlike in other comedies, which mug frantically to grab your attention, these characters need no introduction, partly because there's not much to introduce. They occupy a continuous present in which Anthony, 15, is everyone else's grouchy dogsbody, Jim is tight ("as a crab's arse"), Denise obsesses about her appearance and mum Barbara asks everyone else what they've had for tea. There is no situation, only sitting. Denise may be getting married in six weeks (presumably in the final episode), but when over the phone Barbara tells her mother - who, true to life, no one else wants to talk to - how they're "up to our eyes in it... it's all go", the camera pulls back to reveal a family in voluntary lifelong paralysis.

Naturalistic writing of this calibre puts you in mind of an swan paddling underwater like mad. It must be hard work to make it look this easy. Set somewhere in greater Manchester, the comedy's closest relative is the much more energetic Pauline Calf's Wedding Video, with whom it shares a scriptwriter in Henry Normal. His co-writers are Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash, who also play the fiance and fiancee. With Mrs Merton's creator on board, there's loads of tortuous meta-textuality to sift through if you like that sort of thing. Mr and Mrs Royle are played by Brookside's Mr and Mrs Grant. Cross-reference junkies will look forward to the moment we see them watching an episode from the Close. My favourite example found Jim describing Chris Evans (not named, but you heard the TFI Friday theme tune) as having "ginger bollocks".

This neatly segues into Omnibus (BBC1) on the ginger-haired Alan McGee. This hagiography on the manager of Oasis was too long, especially with no contribution from Noel Gallagher, who sent along his gesticulating wife to be rude about Cherie Blair's decor at Number 10. McGhee is a recovering alcoholic, and has the running machine to prove it, but celebrity confessions of addiction are becoming the new opera: only the rich can afford to indulge, and the story's always the bloody same.