Grace Dent on TV: The Wright Way (BBC1)
Ben Elton has created an admirably broad new comedy. Shame it's not admirably funny
In recent times, the Holy Grail of TV production has been to create something “broad”. Being broad, writing “relatable comedy”, creating jokes so heavily signposted even a Spaniel can sense them coming, is what TV chiefs want. Personally, I don't see “broad” as a pejorative term. “Successfully broad” is the sound of cash-tills ringing merrily and a million Amazon 1-clicks delivering the DVD to all your aunties at Christmas. Successfully broad means tour tickets, coach trips from Dudley, novelty singing birthday cards, and a gong at the National Television Awards. Broad means money, and we all like making money. Well, aside from those who lie about not liking to make money who claim to make their art, write their book, edit their publications purely for goodness' sake, who in the past I have often found to have a ton of money, a driver and a second home in Puglia.
Hence, I cannot harbour malice towards Brendan O' Carroll for BBC1's Mrs Brown's Boys, a show where a man dressed as a gran shouts “fuck” 77 times, interspersed with neighbours appearing dressed as chickens or The Incredible Hulk, shot in front of a studio audience of sedatable giggling hyenas. This is broad at its best – big viewing figures, happy punters. Umpteen thousand sitcom treatments per year are dreamed up by creative sorts, then passed to TV commissioners who write notes saying: “Can this be more broad? Could someone fart in this scene or fall into a pile of egg-boxes? Less talking here, more action? How about a minor plot where a paddling pool of blancmange is delivered to the house in error?” The majority of writers fall by the wayside, but others have the vision and tenacity to push on.
With this in mind, Ben Elton was the perfect person to leap back into the spotlight in 2013 with his big broad comedy for the masses. When Ben Elton helped create We Will Rock You, he didn't lie in bed worrying whether the rough semblance of a plot linking a bunch of Queen smash-hits would spiritually awaken the tourists chomping Minstrels on Row H. As this musical has played continually in every area of the globe for 11 years, I'll assume money didn't cajole him to create The Wright Way. I don't know what caused this but, hot damn, I'd love to have been in some of the meetings.
When Elton wants to write clever stuff he certainly can. A thousand Blackadder script nuggets from 1983 are forever burned into my mind, spilling out of my mouth daily as common parlance despite my better intentions.
The Wright Way focuses on the daily grind of Gerald Wright, a one-note, shouting Health and Safety Department chief from Baselricky. “Baselricky” is what happens when a writer wants to communicate somewhere near Basildon and Billericay and is grasping about for a word and can't find one so shoves in something to be going on with. In non-broad comedy, a script editor would pick up on that and ask for a change. The comedy devil is in the detail, like when Absolutely used “Stoneybridge” to sum up parochial Scottish life. Or in The Young Ones when Vyvyan's hamster is called Special Patrol Group. In creating non-broad comedy an editor would question whether making the tragic hero of the piece a health and safety officer – the weekly delight of a thousand Richard Littlejohn columns since 2003 – a little naff. They might ask who wants to watch a show about a Nigel Farage/Gordon Brittas type being eye-poppingly incredulous about his place in the bathroom queue (“Aren't women annoying!?”), the way cups are stacked in the dishwasher, his ex-wife's current partner's haircut, soap dispensers and so on, never once changing vocal tone, just shouting and more shouting. Wright has a sad-faced lesbian twenty-something daughter, her girlfriend is of non-specific “youth” age in a beanie hat, who reacts to Gerald's shouting with statements like, “OMG this is such a YouTube moment”.
A normal comedy editor might say: “OK, Gerald seems very angry in episode one, in fact, almost at the peak of anger a man can display before being signed off work for convalescence. Where can we go from here?” Broad comedy doesn't worry so much about story arcs or character development. It is, as Father Ted might say, “chewing gum for the eyes”. It is a pleasant way to pass a half-hour as opposed to changing the cat litter or dealing with recycling. In episode two, almost all the same plot points as in episode one recur. There are “OMG YouTube” moments. Gerald's miserable daughter wants him to face up to his divorce, the health and safety department are up to some chaotic high-jinks and a sound man sits on a chair nearby pressing his index finger continually on a laughter track. None of it's terribly funny, but it really is lovely and broad.
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