James Corden: The backlash begins

After a cocky turn at the Baftas and a panning for his latest sketch show, is the tide turning on the bright new star of comedy?
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The Independent Culture

We are never happier than when our idols take off their socks to reveal feet of clay. James Corden, who until not so long ago was the golden boy of British comedy, perhaps knows this better than anyone else just now.

Even so, he is probably surprised at the savagery of the mauling given to a new sketch show with his comedy partner Matthew Horne, which aired for the first time on BBC3 last week.

Perhaps "maul" is too gentle a word. The show was condemned as unfunny, over-reliant on Corden taking his shirt off to reveal his oversized belly, and homophobic. This paper's Hermione Eyre stands out by defending the pair, calling for them not to be put on "a critical see-saw between adoration and bile". Nonetheless, that seems to be just where they are.

"Horne & Corden isn't just bad, it actually made me feel a bit depressed," wrote one national newspaper critic. "Corden's naked body was treated as a kind of get-out-jail-free card," said The Independent's reviewer. The Times' critic drew "a kindly veil" over the "unremarkable sketch show". The Daily Telegraph joined the kicking with, "About as funny as credit default swaps". The New Statesman didn't mince its words either: "Excruciating – as funny and as puerile as a sixth-form revue." The BBC pointed out that it received its highest first-night audience for BBC3. The show pulled in a healthy number of repeat viewers and was the most popular show on the iPlayer watch-again download. A spokeswoman said the show was aimed at twenty-somethings, not middle-aged television critics.

In part, the savaging inflicted on the duo stems from a backlash that has been brewing for some time. Horne and Corden were hailed as the bright young future of British comedy after the slow-burn success of Gavin and Stacey, a sitcom about young love which Corden co-wrote and starred in alongside Horne. Since then, both actors have put themselves about. Horne is appearing in Entertaining Mr Sloane in the West End. Corden, who also appeared in Fat Friends and Alan Bennett's The History Boys, has provided red-top fodder, having courted Lily Allen and the X Factor winner Alexandra Burke. The duo presented this year's Brit Awards and are plastered over advertising hoardings to promote the sketch show.

A bumptious Corden has done little to slow an evaporation of goodwill with, for example, a cocky acceptance speech at the Bafta awards – after picking up two awards for Gavin and Stacey, he berated the judges for not giving him a third. Irritation within the entertainment establishment has reached such a pass that, according to industry rumours, Rob Brydon, the comic actor who also appeared in Gavin and Stacey, sat Corden down to warn him in an avuncular way that he risked alienating his audience and so flushing away his career.

The Stage's TV critic, Harry Venning, was less kind yesterday, observing that over-exposure and hubris had led Horne and Corden to think they could just turn up and make people laugh. The duo "deserve everything they get", he wrote, adding: "They are actors, not comedians. The whole thing was terrible. Corden has a bit of comic persona, but Horne hasn't any. He was stuck in this awful straight-man role. What really annoys me is this attitude that they've had a hit sitcom – done that – so writing a sketch show should be easy. What happened to quality control? Didn't anyone think, 'We need to get in some writers'? It's a shame because I like them both. They are very good actors."

The comedy writer Julian Hall said Horne and Corden were at the mercy of overly high expectations: "I saw them on tour and they played much of that material to a student crowd who gave them a rapturous welcome – more because they are seeing their heroes rather than because of the material. The sketch show is not great, but it's not awful. They've caught a lot of flak because of who they are ... It's not spectacular and some of it is obvious, but the acting quality of the pair is very good."

Worse may be to come this week when Lesbian Vampire Killers, the pair's homage to the films of Hammer Horror, is released on Friday. It premiered at a special Frightfest screening in London earlier this month to decidedly mixed reviews. "I hated this stupid, sexist, homophobic film. I mark it down as stunted, puerile claptrap and a waste of the talents of James Corden," wrote one reviewer.

There are signs that Horne and Corden may have got the message. Speaking yesterday, Corden said: "Promise once this film is out of the way we will really just go away. We can go for a bit and hopefully resurface later. Hopefully we're not getting on anyone's nerves because that is the last thing we want to do really."