Georgie and Poppy Carlton are two British aristocrats (50th and 51st in line to the throne) who have allowed cameras to film them on a once-in-a-lifetime trip around America. Except they’re not really. They’re actors, Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart, playing a Borat-style character-comedy prank in Almost Royal, BBC America’s first original comedy commission, which arrived in the UK last night on E4.
The Carltons’ tour began in Los Angeles, a city that is to satirical targets as barrels are to fish. It was almost too easy. On a cycle tour of stars’ homes, they pretended to misunderstand the phrase “friends with benefits” and insisted it was an accurate description of their own sibling relationship. They listened as Eighties model Fabio described the health benefits of whey protein and then tried to persuade him to return to the family pile, Caunty Manor, as a souvenir for “mummy”. “He’s a dishy, older, foreign-looking man – and who likes dishy, older foreign-looking men...?”
At its best, Sacha Baron Cohen’s work elevated this sort of comedy to cultural comment, revealing the hidden bigotries and hypocrisies of his interviewees. Or, failing that, he had a naked wrestling match in a roomful of horrified conference attendees and that was funny too. This first episode of Almost Royal did elicit some chuckles, but it was never as satirical or as audacious. Perhaps America has grown wise to these ploys, but the most extreme reaction that the Carltons got from their victims was only polite bafflement. BBC America often boasts of its “soft power” influence around the world, but apparently the Downton effect amounts only to this: courting the approval of lucrative foreign markets by playing up to tired national stereotypes. Now, what would the Dowager Countess have to say about that?
A Touch of Cloth, which has started a three-part third series on Sky1 (Sat), is the kind of British comedy that probably wouldn’t work in America. From the title’s cheeky play on words to the multiple Todd Carty references, this is a spoof cop drama made with British viewers in mind. (Although anyone could enjoy the string of Piers Morgan insults. Those are universally appealing.)
It’s co-written by Charlie Brooker (Black Mirror) and Daniel Maier, whose writing credits include Harry Hill’s TV Burp, and there’s a lot of Burp in both the affectionate spoofing of British television conventions and the relentless onslaught of silliness. The convoluted plots of police procedurals usually require some viewer concentration, but here it’s the gags that have you reaching for rewind on the TiVo remote. There are so many of them – visual, verbal, saucy and slapstick – that to watch A Touch of Cloth is to be constantly plagued by the fear that you’ve missed something brilliant.
Casting John Hannah as DI Jack Frost and Suranne Jones as DC Anne Oldman (pronounced “an old man”) is a particular joy, given both of them have often appeared in exactly the kind of series ridiculed here. It wouldn’t be half as much fun to have a comedian deliver lines like, “You never get used to the way you get used to it and that takes some getting used to” and keep a straight face.
This season there’s also new blood in the shape of Doctor Who’s Karen Gillan as...er... Kerry Newblood. It’s an opportunity to send up all those clichés pertaining to rookies, of which there are plenty. Not that there’s any danger of the writers running out of material. As long as TV’s obsession with grisly murders and maverick cops continues, there’ll always be a case for DCI Cloth to solve.