Last Night's TV: Reunited, BBC1
Men about the House, BBC4
Top Gear, BBC2
Thursday 01 July 2010
Reunited couldn't more conspicuously have been a pilot if it had been wearing flying goggles and a leather helmet, but for some reason nobody seemed to want to mention the fact. Mike Bullen's script about student housemates meeting up again after eight years was described in the Radio Times as a "comedy drama", which rather suggested that within the hour Mike Bullen would have tied up at least one of the mop-head of loose ends he'd assembled. But as tick followed tock it dawned on you that Hannah's agony over whether Martin still loved her or Belinda's guilty secret about "Spanish lessons" or Rob's odd-couple affair with the judgemental Fran were not going to get any firm resolution before the final credits rolled, and you lost your only remaining motive for watching. It was a bit like being told a shaggy dog story only to have the teller smile enigmatically at the end and say he might deliver the punchline in eight months' time, provided the overnights turned out to be good enough.
I'm not keeping my fingers crossed myself, because this looked like a parody of Cold Feet-style drama, rather than a fresh product by the man who helped create it. In fact, what it really looked like was one of those narrative adverts that take their inspiration from Cold Feet-style drama, a Gold Blend world in which every line is silkily knowing, or involves embarrassment as well rehearsed as a dance routine. It had the same commercial compression in the storytelling, so that when Martin (on the brink of marriage and still nursing a grievance over a now ancient infidelity) spotted his old flame in the pub he froze in the doorway and a little shimmer on the soundtrack did the emotional shorthand for you in about two seconds flat, no characterisation required.
This was an ensemble affair though, so Gold Blend won't quite cover it. Before long, a Magners cider gang turned up, perky in their backchat, up for fun, breaking off for bits of man-hugging and girlish giggling. Hannah was at the centre of it, but there were other storylines circling: needy Sarah, who announced that she'd found Jesus and Belinda and Danny, who were three children into a marriage and – on her side at least – beginning to get twitchy about it. And then there was Rob, a serious miscalculation by the likeable Irish comedian Ed Byrne, who had somehow been persuaded to take on the role of Rob, the feckless, notionally "charming" one. "If you still want to punch me I'd understand," he said perkily, when he met Martin in the loo (it was Rob who slept with Hannah when he shouldn't have). Martin declined, but I'd have been more than happy to do it for him if I'd been on the spot.
Men about the House purported to be a contribution to BBC4's Fatherhood strand and made very little sense indeed. One of those clip-show social histories, it was notionally a survey of how sitcoms had reflected attitudes to fathers over the last few decades. If you thought this might imply the presence of children you were only half right. The first two examples were Albert Steptoe and Alf Garnett, both of them fathers, it's true, but the stars of shows that were less about fatherhood than generational friction. The historian Dominic Sandbrook was allowed to point out that Some Mother's Do 'Ave 'Em was about slapstick not fatherhood, but then they tried to rope it in to the thesis anyway, as they did with Reginald Perrin, a comedy about almost anything but fatherhood.
Perversely, the programme made you wonder why fatherhood had been so marginal a subject in British comedy – one answer to that question being bluntly practical. Most child actors have the comic timing of a talking clock and even the few that don't are hedged in by child-protection legislation, making filming a nightmare. You either have to leave the children out entirely – as Marion & Geoff brilliantly did, or find a different way of working with them, as Outnumbered worked out, though significantly that comedy, one of very few you can think of that directly addresses the aggravations and absurdity of modern fatherhood, wasn't even mentioned here, even though it found room to squeeze in Father Ted. If you have to rewrite history because you can't get the clips clearance, then perhaps it isn't worth writing the history at all.
I've praised Top Gear in the past as an example of a programme that has a sniper's eye for its target audience, giving them what they want with unerring precision. I think I'd stick to that, but it really doesn't help to watch the programme, which, to anyone outside its demographic bull's-eye, will appear grimly callow and pleased with itself. It's slowly turning into Last of the Summer Wine – a group of adolescents bickering with each other and getting into scrapes in a variety of runaway vehicles. This week, James May drove a four-by-four to the lip of an Icelandic volcano, setting fire to his tyres in the process, and Jeremy Clarkson repeatedly rolled a Reliant Robin, the joke being that even the smallest deviation from straight-line travel managed to bring this about. In between times, they sniggered at penis graffiti, scoffed at global warming and indulged in a bit of Seventies backs-to-the-wall homophobia with Louie Spence, the camp one from Pineapple Dance Studios. Relax, Jeremy, I really don't think you're his type.
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