Bellamy's People, BBC 2
Horizon: Pill Poppers, BBC 2
Paul Whitehouse returns to form with a gentle spoof of the celebrity road trip that's packed with glorious loons
Sunday 24 January 2010
There is, as the literary critic Cyril Connolly wrote in Enemies of Promise (1938), "no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall". Updating that thought for the modern masses, Mock the Week regular Frankie Boyle wrote in Radio Times last year: "You know what it is – after 40, very few comedians are very good. Very few anybodies are any good at anything."
Happily, Paul Whitehouse (51 and a father of three) has taken neither Connolly nor Boyle at their word. There was a moment back there – 2007's excruciating Harry & Paul, to be precise – when it looked as if both men (Connolly and Boyle, not Harry and Paul) might have a point. But the first episode of Bellamy's People served as a timely and welcome reminder of the undimmed gifts Whitehouse can bring to a worthy project.
The idea first appeared as Radio 4's spoof phone-in Down the Line. In it, the "award-winning" talk-show host Gary Bellamy (played with gentle perfection on radio and television by comedian Rhys Thomas) fielded calls from an array of characters whose endless obsessions – parking restrictions, political correctness gone mad, the usual – formed a slow-drip portrait of Britain at the start of the 21st century.
Now, Bellamy has got out of his "cosy little studio", made himself "presentable for TV" and taken to the road to come face to face with his listeners, the people of Britain, Britain, Britain. And while that may at first feel like an opportunity for garish caricature à la Lucas and Walliams, or grotesquery of the Royston Vasey kind, Bellamy's People is actually a gentle swipe at the family of shows that began with Coast before graduating to the cheap television masquerading as "infotainment" that was the "celebrity road trip".
Cue the "Bellamy-mobile", a Triumph Stag with a Union Jack on its bonnet that transports our hapless hero from character to character. And given that these are played by an ensemble cast including Fast Show regulars Charlie Higson and Simon Day, there are, in episode one alone, more glorious loons than can be found in a highlights package of day-one auditions for Britain's Got Talent.
There's Rosie Cavaliero and Lucy Montgomery's fab and frightening Combe sisters, one an unreconstructed communist, the other an unapologetic fascist who has shaken hands with Hitler. And what "bishy-boshy, fishy-foshy" lacks as a punchline on paper, it more than makes up for when spoken by two women of a certain age who dress like the Queen at Balmoral and Margaret Thatcher respectively.
You want catchphrase comedy that can be taken to the playground? Whitehouse can still do that, too. In fact, judging by episode one of eight, his white-van man Martin Hole – the kind of wink-wink, nudge-nudge bully Vinnie Jones has proved himself to be on Celebrity Big Brother – has got a couple up his England-shirt sleeves: "You know I'm right, they know I'm right ..." competing with "I done you there. I done you right up" for quotability.
How often such characters will reappear over the course of Bellamy's People remains to be seen. But if Whitehouse and co can keep the standard this high, the result might just be that – in the same way the Loadsamoney archetype shrivelled under the glare of his 1980s reflection – Whitehouse's latest vehicle lances the odd boil (or should that be Boyle?) from the landscape of modern Britain.
Talking of which, if Horizon: Pill Poppers is to be believed, lancing boils is one of the few things they've yet to invent a tablet for. In this hour-long examination of our relationship with "these tiny spheres with a magical effect", the makers managed to tick all the boxes from the fact that anti-biotics have increased our lifespan by a decade to the ethical dilemmas surrounding our increasing reliance on painkillers, statins, performance enhancers and mood-managers.
Viagra, Ritalin, Prozac ... all were given airtime as users and abusers brought their legal drug of choice to the programme-makers' table. And if the bewildering array of stats and facts sometimes felt like an overdose in itself, there were also enough sugar-coated "Well, I never" moments to help the medicine go down. Who knew, for example, that there are students at Oxford using drugs intended to combat attention-deficit disorder to help them concentrate on revision.
Luckily, experts were on hand to point out that the thing that set out to be the solution can itself become the problem. And if that sounds dry, it's worth mentioning that this documentary may also have inadvertently made TV history: in the section on Viagra, there was the unmistakable (if thermally shrouded) shot of an erect penis. And we all know where that will lead: more prams in the hall and, apparently, less good art.
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