"Channel 4 has been at the forefront of British comedy from day one," says head of comedy, Shane Allen, publicising Channel 4's Funny Fortnight – 30 hours of comedy programming that includes at least six new pilots. "We've launched so many careers by backing new talent."
Very true, but with Sky attracting so much mature talent to its golden embrace (and, it must be said, to its creative latitude) and the BBC, with innovative shows such as Rev and Twenty Twelve (and BBC3 showcasing a lot of younger talent), proving to be no slouch, it is a serious moment for Funny Fortnight to deliver.
In three cases – Toast of London, Bad Sugar and Just Around the Corner – deliver it does. Written by Father Ted creator Arthur Mathews and Matt Berry of The IT Crowd, Toast of London, is my out-and-out favourite, imbued as it is with Father Ted's surreal brio in its tale of actor-on-the-skids Steven Toast (Berry). The "sit" in this sitcom calls for big performances, and, boy, do we get them, while the scene in which Toast is auditioned in a prison visiting room (the director has been banged up for Holocaust denial) is a pure delight.
Just Around the Corner also bears the paw marks of comedy veterans – in this case those of Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin (Outnumbered and Drop the Dead Donkey) – but, more importantly, it has a fantastic central premise. It's set in an England beset with climate change and the collapse of the banking system, ruled by local warlords (here a certain "Big Delia"), and where the Dutch are the despised immigrant group – Holland having been swallowed by the sea. Starring James Fleet and James Bolam, this is the sort of high-concept stuff we used to get in the Seventies, with Reggie Perrin and The Good Life.
Bad Sugar stars a triumvirate of top female comedy talent – the lip-smacking ensemble of Olivia Coleman, Julia Davis and Sharon Horgan – in a sort of British pastiche of Dynasty/Dallas-style Eighties soaps, written by Peep Show creators Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong. How could that go wrong? It doesn't, but of the three, I have my strongest doubts about Bad Sugar's ability to make a successful series. It feels more like a glorious one-off.
The best of the rest in Funny Fortnight is led by Them from That Thing, an "all-star" sketch show led by a multi-generational cast of Sally Phillips, Kayvan Novak, Kevin Eldon and Morgana Robinson. The opening sketch was in many ways the neatest – with Bill Paterson playing an MP who invites the media to his front driveway (where he is parading his wife and children) to announce that he has decided to spend more time away from his family. There is also mediocre stuff here, but the inclusion of Phillips is a reminder of when Channel 4 really innovated with a sketch show – Smack the Pony.
The Function Room, set above a pub, I found laboured and third-hand (see Early Doors or The Smoking Room), despite a cast that includes the likes of Simon Day and Reece Shearsmith, while I'm Spazticus, in which disabled actors play pranks on members of the public, has a strong USP but may appeal more to those tickled by Candid Camera (it lacked the sweet surrealism of Dom Joly's Trigger Happy TV). All in all, it's anything but a bad collection of programming. If I have one overarching worry, it would be about the average age of the performers involved. Whatever Channel 4's past record in this area, I don't see any new careers being launched here.
Channel 4's Funny Fortnight runs until 27 August
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