Grace Dent on TV: Catastrophe is one of the funniest British comedies in years

Comedy is bloody hard to do, so when something as wonderfully funny as Channel 4’s Catastrophe appears, it feels exciting

It is terrifically easy to have big plans to write a brilliant sitcom. There are people all over Britain – right this moment – bashing out awful pilots. Comedy they hope will be emblematic of a generation, but will transpire to be a massive ball-ache to make funny, and at very best will be savaged by TV execs with red pens and made into something safely unappealing. Comedy is bloody hard to do: which is why, when something as wonderfully funny as Channel 4’s Catastrophe appears, it feels so very, very exciting.

Catastrophe – the one about the accidental pregnancy – is the comedy that, by episode five, everyone seems to be talking about. Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney – writers and stars of the show – have the twinkly-eyed, mutual p*sstaking chemistry reminiscent of Hanks and Ryan in You’ve Got Mail. Pithy support comes from the endearingly intense Mark Bonnar (Chris), his vile wife Fran (Ashley Jensen), plus a strong, tight cast (including Carrie Fisher) playing family members and colleagues, who combine to make Catastrophe one of the funniest British comedies of the past five years.

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Channel 4’s Catastrophe is about an accidental pregnancy (Ed Miller/Channel 4)

It’s certainly the most I’ve ever laughed at the grim odds of screening for foetal abnormality as a “geriatric” mum, or about cervical dysplasia, which is a cancer, but which Sharon’s gynaecologist says isn’t. It’s more of a pre-cancer. So still cancer, but nothing to worry about. “Doctor,” says Sharon, dryly unconvinced, “You have said cancer rather a lot, like more than you would hear in a casual conversation that isn’t about cancer.”

The sharp, one-liners about sex, seepages, prostate massages and masturbation come thick and fast, but I wonder if Catastrophe’s big appeal is that, behind the swagger and gorgeous non-stop smut, this is a good news story. Catastrophe is about the life-altering power of love. That big, stupid, senseless love that creeps up on you like a jackal, ransacks your common sense and makes a person move to London from Boston, America to live with a teacher he impregnated after knowing for about 47 minutes.

When single people are told, time and again, that “someone will just come along”, it is wholly infuriating, but Catastrophe is about just this type of serendipity. We are all, it seems, just human beings floating about looking for warmth, occasionally banging into each other. Rob finds temporary warmth with an “extraordinarily goodsmelling” Irish woman who happens to find a spot near him in a bar queue.

“I’m pregnant,” shouts Sharon – weeks later – down the phone to Boston. “I don’t understand,” says Rob, genuinely bemused. “You don’t understand?” says Sharon, “Well I think it was because we had sex like 20 times in a week… and you wore a condom, like twice.” Rob is horrified. “Why? Why did YOU let me do that?” There is a beautiful honesty in this writing. Delicate ideas done with dirty aplomb.

 

Can any baby, it asks, that is the product of 18 bouts of unprotected sex between two grown, educated adults be truly classed as “accidental”?Sharon mulls temporarily over an abortion. “Well, how old are you?” asks Rob, kindly but plainly pointing out this might be her last chance at motherhood. No more words are needed. They decide to give being parents, together, a go.

The temptation must have been, when making this show, to put in more explanation or detail, simply to ensure that the characters were instantly likeable. I love that Catastrophe, instead, allows its cast to be flawed and mysterious. Chris, in the opening episode, seemed little more than a testy bully who was unhappy about his wife’s impromptu dinner party. By episode five, Chris has opened up into a joyous, razor-witted grump who seems sadistically to relish his wife’s awful behaviour.

Meanwhile, the running joke, where Fran brags about her son’s acting ability and Sharon subtly undermines it, is pure joy to behold. We have all been reduced to that level of childishness when faced with a serial bragger. Sharon and Fran’s friendship is the antidote to a million syrupy love letters to female friendship.

“Why does everything have to go right for her?” fumes Sharon to Rob. “I wish sometimes her dad would get caught with child porn, you know, just to knock the smug out of her.”

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Sharon (Sharon Horgan) and Melisa (Sarah Niles) in Catastrophe (Ed Miller/Channel 4)

As the first series closes, I need another dozen episodes, at least. I love Sharon’s dad with the wonky heart as he “comes to terms” with news of the baby. I want to see Fergal, Sharon’s brother, knocked off his perch as the golden child.

“He’s tripled his money on this house!” gushes Sharon’s dad. “He didn’t do anything, Dad,” Sharon snaps, instantly aged 12 again in the presence of her parents. “The money did that. He just sat there.”

I want to see Rob’s lairy, coke-fuelled friend Dave grow up and learn to love. I want to see Rob and Sharon cope with their new baby, and I hope it’s far more beautiful that Fran’s precious little soldier. Most of all, I want them to make this brilliant mess work. They’ve got a good thing going.

It’s a catastrophe, but a bloody good one.

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