TELEVISION: Watching television: it's the real thing

COMEDY; The Royle Family BBC2 Touch and Go BBC2
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The Independent Culture
There wasn't much of a fanfare to herald The Royle Family, but what little advance publicity there was described it as a comedy drama. You can only feel sorry for anyone who regards it as dramatic. "Gasp ... as Jim tries on a new pair of jeans! Scream ... as Antony pours a cup of tea! Hide Behind The Sofa ... as the family refuse to budge from theirs!" It is quite possibly the least dramatic programme ever made. A working class Mancunian family chain-smoke in front of the television, the neighbours pop in, and that's it. There are no scene changes. Half an hour of screen time is half an hour in the life of the Royles. Seinfeld misleadingly labelled itself "a show about nothing", when each episode was actually a Bayeux Tapestry of plot strands. The Royle Family is the real thing.

It's a high-risk experiment to produce a series that has less plot than a dictionary, and the only way to succeed is to have some extraordinary dialogue. The Royle Family does. Caroline Aherne (or "TV's Mrs Merton", in OK! Magazine parlance) stars as 26-year-old Denise, and she co-writes the programme with Henry Normal and Craig Cash, who appears as her fiance, Dave. Antony (Ralf Little) is her surly 15-year-old brother. He grumbles when he is dispatched to the off-licence to replenish the family's cigarette supplies (he's not allowed to have any for himself until he's old enough to buy them legally), but, refreshingly, he can't be bothered to rebel against his parents. They are played by Ricky Tomlinson and Sue Johnston - Mr and Mrs Grant in Brookside - and they are terrific.

Tomlinson's Jim Royle, the archetypal miserable sod, picks a nose like a rotting strawberry in between delivering the best lines. He hears that Dave's dad is on a disability allowance, so won't be chipping in for the forthcoming wedding, and he is exasperated by this injustice: "He's paying bugger all, and he'll get a better parking space!" If this doesn't seem hilarious in print, then I promise it was when Tomlinson said it. There is no exaggeration in the actors' performances, no studio audience to project to, and the banter moves to the rhythms of the fly-on-the-wall documentary rather than the sitcom. The dialogue is extraordinary because, for all its humour, it sounds so ordinary.

Apart from flies-on-walls, the past British TV shows which were nearest in tone to The Royle Family were by Mike Leigh, Steve Coogan and Victoria Wood. And in distilling comedy from conversations we have all had, it may be the sitcom Tony Hancock dreamed of making. Ironically, though, The Royle Family's blue-collar naturalism finds its closest relation in the new wave of American cartoons: King of the Hill, foremost, but also Beavis and Butt-Head, if only because its protagonists are hypnotised by the television.

It's an old truism that people on TV never watch enough TV, but the Royles do little else. "He's everywhere, him," grumbles Jim when Chris Evans comes on. "He's like shit in a field." (Tomorrow's episode slips up, though, in putting David Attenborough on the box. When TV characters do watch TV, how come it's always wildlife programmes?)

Another truism is that there are too many middle-class sitcoms set in living rooms, so Aherne and co must have relished setting The Royle Family in a living room that Terry and June wouldn't have recognised: one so cramped that Denise has to squeeze between the arm chair and the couch when she wants to go into the kitchen. We're not used to seeing such families on television. To be more accurate, we're not used to seeing them unless they're being ground down by joblessness, drug addiction, domestic violence and bedwetting.

The Royle Family has more affection for its characters: you don't need a crisis to make a comedy drama. Twinges of disgruntlement tighten their faces, but the Royles are fundamentally closeknit and warm - unlike, perhaps, the Royals. What we have here is a genuinely original sitcom, and if the quality keeps up, it will be a happy and glorious one. The Royle Family rules.

Touch and Go set Martin Clunes a dual challenge: he had to convince in a straight role - no problem - and he had to keep up a Yorkshire accent - one out of two ain't bad. In this feature-length drama he played Nick, who was bored of sex with his lovely wife, Alison, and thought that some partner-swapping might relight their fire.

Alison was played by Zara Turner, and she had an even greater challenge. She had to change her mind, scene-by-scene, about how interested she was in sex with her husband, sex with other people and her marriage as a whole. One minute she's half-heartedly agreeing with Nick to keep "swinging", as long as they keep it to themselves (so to speak). The next, she's ignoring Nick's requests to return to monogamy and offering some old friends something other than After Eights to round off their dinner. A veteran wife-swapper reassured Nick that, not to worry, "women are sleeping dragons", but I think Alison must have been schizophrenic. Why did Nick need any other women in his life, when his wife was several of them herself?

Like Alison, Martin Allen's script was in two minds. There was some heartbreakingly authentic material about a couple's realisation that they weren't meant for each other, such as the scene in which Nick, dancing with Alison at a wedding reception, crumpled in sobs as he accepted that they had to part.

And the wife-swapping material, if never reaching The Ice Storm's level of itchy discomfort, was definitely educational. But these stories just didn't connect: Allen had been doing some script-swapping, and his two themes, rather than bonding, shared nothing more than an awkward one-night-stand.

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