Last night's TV: Inside No 9 (BBC2); Catastrophe (Channel 4)

Comedies in a league of their own

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The Independent Culture

By rights, “proper” telly ought to be dead by now, brutally murdered by Rupert Murdoch, social media, YouTube and, of course, the ubiquitous cat video. I wonder, parenthetically, what future generations will make of that early 21st century obsession, the “shared” sneezing cat clip. Maybe they will look back with pity as we do to the poor sods that had to make it through the Great Depression, only to be rewarded with Hitler’s war, or the generation once blighted by Georgian gin alley, and wonder what had overtaken the British people. 

Still, like independent bookshops and the Liberal Democrats, the BBC and quality TV somehow survive in a hostile world. In the case of the superb People Just Do Nothing and This Country, the BBC has used digital media, as we must learn to call them, with devastating comic effect. The iPlayer, after all, is just a gigantic archive of fine telly; if it had been around when I did my A-levels I’d still be doing night shifts cleaning at Walkers crisps (more fun, that, than it sounds, by the way). 

As an example of the rude health of what you might call trad trad telly, I offer you Inside No 9. This is the sorted of crafted self-contained drama that there used to be much more of on our screens, before everything got soapified into ratings-driven cliffhanging series. Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s run of six plays – they do deserve that title – are as dark as you’d expect from these gentlemen.

 

In “Diddle Diddle Dumpling” we found a nice comfortably off couple (Shearsmith plus a nicely pushy-bourgeois Keeley Hawes) having their lives quietly torn asunder by a black, men’s slip-on shoe (size 9) found outside their spacious suburban home. All the action takes place inside a couple of rooms and just outside, as with the other episodes – but it is the opposite of claustrophobic. 

As the story unfolds the viewer starts to explore vast prairies of inner emotional tensions and joins the protagonists as they hack their way through the jungle of unresolved emotional crises. We watch, open-gobbed, as Shearsmith’s character descends into a nervous breakdown as he obsesses about how the shoe got there and how it can be returned to its owner. Absurdly, he dedicates his life to returning the shoe, a macabre reimagining of Cinderella.

Gradually the layers of his existence are laid bare and we learn the shoe in fact belongs to him and that the real driver for this irrational quest is the death of an infant twin child. It doesn’t sound like a renaissance in British comedy, I know, but this, and those other exceptional new shows, make me glad that whoever runs the BBC’s comedy output is doing such an amazing job. 

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Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan in the brilliant ‘Catastrophe’ (Channel 4)

It’s not just the BBC that’s pretty funny these days. Catastrophe is maintaining its high quality through its run, though in an odd way, I miss the amount of shagging evident in earlier episodes/series. So, I imagine do Rob (Rob Delaney) and Sharon (Sharon Horgan) who find their passions extinguished by a depressing encounter with the London property market. There were the sort of details of intimate cosmetic surgery that rule the show out as family viewing, which is a bit of a shame really, but I much enjoyed the triumphant rejection of botox and genital rejuvenation by Sharon and Ashley Jensen’s character Fran (40-something, single and, obviously, sent half-mad by societal body shape expectations).

I also learnt a new insult for an estate agent equipped with an excessive amount of chunky bling – “you look like a magician” – as well as name I’d rather not repeat here for a lady garden. As the ultimate treat, the distinguished and ever versatile Oliver Ford Davies turned up as a grumpy old bloke and, of course, stole the episode. Telly doesn’t get much better than that, does it? 

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