Last Night's Television - Catastrophe, Channel 4; Clone, BBC3
Tuesday 25 November 2008
Last week on this page I left myself with only a line or two to review the new sitcom
Clone, and having found the first episode about as funny as gastroenteritis, I gave as much vent to my scorn as I could in such limited space. But afterwards I wondered whether I had perhaps committed the not-uncommon error among TV reviewers of rushing to judgement. After all, I have form in this area, having once dismissed as "pathetically feeble" the first episode of a new comedy about three peculiar Irish priests holed up somewhere called Craggy Island, a slating that the producers of Father Ted cheerfully quoted for years afterwards, alongside extravagant praise from every one of my peers.
Moreover, a new sitcom needs time to bed in. "Short on jokes" was the Daily Mirror's verdict of the first episode of a new comedy in autumn 1975, while to the Evening Standard critic it was "thin and obvious", yet Fawlty Towers emerged to top practically every best-sitcom poll ever conducted. Restaurateurs often claim that it is unfair to review their efforts on opening night when they are still finding their feet, to which a legitimate response is that they should reduce their prices until they feel their feet are found, but with sitcom producers we should be more tolerant. In comedy, familiarity breeds affection.
So, bearing all that in mind, I decided not to rely on my first viewing of Clone, which I had dismissed as "utter bilge", but to take a long, considered look at episode two. And, sure enough, I revised my opinion. It is total dross rather than utter bilge, eerily reminiscent of the terrible plays one's children stage for the grown-ups when they are six or seven, which we laugh at and applaud because we love them, and believe they should be indulged. But I don't love anybody in Clone, and see no reason to indulge them.
Its plot is that a brilliant scientist working for a branch of the secret service has tried to clone a "prototype supersoldier", which unfortunately turns out to be an accident-prone moron. The scientist (Jonathan Pryce) and the clone (Stuart McLoughlin) then go on the run, while the ruthless head of MI7 (Mark Gatiss) tries to locate and kill them. Between each scene, in which the dialogue vies with the slapstick for gruesome unfunniness, we get a graphic of the DNA helix, which is apt in more ways than one, because Clone is itself a grotesquely misshapen descendant of other far more competent sitcoms, most obviously Mork and Mindy, which similarly got its laughs from the literal unworldliness of the central character.
One difference is that McLoughlin is no Robin Williams. But that's not fair, because actually he makes an engaging clown. A bigger problem is that Pryce, mighty fine actor though he is, seems as out of place as a nun in a brothel. I don't mean that he can't do comedy, but being the straight man in a bad comedy looks like an acting challenge too far. The biggest problem of all, however, is Adam Chase's script. It really is outstandingly poor, and its poverty is compounded by the canned laughter. At least I hope it's canned, because no live audience should be forced to chortle when an alien, to all intents and purposes, comments on the spectacle of two people making love by saying "they appeared to bewrestling in a very gentle way". This lot, of course, fell about.
Now, I wouldn't give the script such a thumping if Chase were a young writer trying to make his way in a demanding world. But he was the executive producer of Friends, for heaven's sake. And his producer here is Ash Atalla, who brought us The Office. Put those guys in a room with performers of the quality of Pryce and Gatiss and you would expect something fine to emerge, which doubtless BBC3 did. But maybe the room was too big. By all accounts, Chase tried to bring the American team-writing ethic to the project. Unfortunately, some things just can't be cloned.
It was, apparently, an episode of Blackadder that made Chase fall in love with British comedy (would that he had continued to plight his troth from afar), and last night Baldrick himself, in the more hygienic form of Tony Robinson, presented Catastrophe, a new series that examines how our planet was formed. As a man who still comes out in a rash at the sight of the periodic table, I had to concentrate really, really hard, but was rewarded with the knowledge, which I look forward to using in a social situation, that life on earth stems from a collision with another planet 4.5 billion years ago, which created the Moon. The Moon in turn created tides, and when the tides calmed down because the moon got further away, life began to emerge from the oceans. "So out of catastrophe came a new beginning," said Robinson. Hey, maybe Clone could be the start of something really good.
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