Review: A sitcom with a certain air: it stinks

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The Independent Culture
IF YOU could bottle half-an-hour of television comedy and label it Essence de Sitcom, it would soon make room for itself on the perfume counter. Among the subtle odours: a powerful scent of cordite mingling with a hint of furniture polish, faint notes of unwashed sock and the merest suggestion of incontinence. All manner of critical epithets would hail the new fragrance - 'traditional', 'homely', 'everyday' - but 'amusing' wouldn't be among them.

Conjugal Rites (ITV) is the sitcom distilled to its very finest quintessence: a bickering couple live in suburbia with two teenage children, one grandparent and one dog. A promising situation, but what's the premise? The bickering couple . . . bicker a lot. But isn't there a twist? The twist is that their teenage children are, uh, teenagers. But surely there's a spin put on the twist? Well, the grandparent is, you know, really old. Oh, and the dog talks.

Actually, grandad was in hospital for 'When I'm 64', the defiantly original title of last night's episode, so that cut the jokes by 20 per cent. We made do with a running gag about how Barry, a sad old dentist in a cardigan played by Michael Williams, and Gen, a power-dressing lawyer played by Gwen Taylor, will be impoverished in their dotage. Their children, meanwhile, were impoverished right then and there; because their parents wouldn't cough up, they were both considering escort work. And before the nine o'clock watershed too.

If there is a difference between Conjugal Rites and the umpteen other sitcoms about conjugal rites that have been and gone, it is that it fearlessly avoids throwing punchlines at you every second. In a split-screen device that crops up in every episode, Barry and Gen utter to themselves private thoughts about each other, and for once your lack of laughter is solicited. Barry: 'Surely she knows I'll provide for her in her old age.' Gen: 'I'll have to live on a pittance; I can't believe he's let me down like this.' That sort of thing. The fearlessness, though, is misplaced, because for the device to work you need to be interested enough in the characters not to crave entertainment every time they open their mouths. It might work in Drop the Dead Donkey, but this is just a case of drop the dead comedy. It stinks.

Danger Theatre (BBC 2), a late-night curio from the States, provides an object lesson in taking a caricature and making it just that little bit more fantastical. Each week Robert Vaughn, seen earlier in the evening spoofing the spy genre in The Man from UNCLE (BBC 2), presents two engagingly ridiculous sketches that spoof the western series and the Hawaiian cop show. In the first, we met the Searcher, an idiot on a motorbike who survives fatal accidents roughly every third frame; he's what you'd get if you crossed Clint Eastwood with Frank Spencer. He's not the funniest creation on television, but at least he's a creation.

For a reality check you had to go to A Skirt through History (BBC 2), which last night got round to the suffragettes, who wrapped bricks in brown paper and hurled them at important windows. The restrictions placed on this series are much greater than those on a sitcom - the characters are mostly sedentary and the sets are Spartan - but thanks to the original writings of the subjects, the sense of space is impressive and the dramatic tension acute. 'I don't think Mrs Pankhurst had played ball games in her youth,' commented the composer Ethel Smyth (played with stiff back and ramrod eyes by Paola Dionisotti) when the brick thrown by the movement's leaderene missed the window of Number 10 by quite a distance. Now there's real comedy for you.

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