Last Night's TV: The Invisibles BBC1, The Inbetweeners E4

You've had your time, gentlemen
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The Independent Culture

There's a rather shocking interview with the scriptwriter William Ivory in this week's Radio Times, in which he describes the genesis of The Invisibles. "The starting premise," he says, "was that it would be about people on the wrong side of 50 trying to get back into the mainstream. And then I thought, 'What if the mainstream isn't mainstream? What if you're trying to get back into the underworld?'" Just take a mouthful of that and swill it around, if you've got a moment. He thinks that crooks coming out of retirement is a twist, a new idea. Whatever next? How about a drama involving a policeman who solves crimes – but he's a maverick who doesn't go by the book. Or no, hang on, this one's even better: a successful City type moves to a seemingly idyllic village – but it's populated by lovable eccentrics. That's going to make the viewers sit up and take notice, isn't it?

I'd mind The Invisibles less if there weren't so much talent involved in it. Ivory himself is an interesting, if inconsistent, writer, with a CV that includes the dustbin-men drama Common As Muck and The Sins, a decidedly odd serial about an ex-thief-turned-undertaker, played by Pete Postlethwaite. The retired clichés, beg pardon, crooks are played by Warren Clarke and Anthony Head, with Jenny Agutter as Head's wife. I don't think any of them can have felt unduly taxed by the complexities of this one.

The premise is simple: Syd (Clarke) and Maurice (Head) used to be Britain's top burglars, committing glamorous thefts and never getting caught (hence, their nickname, the Invisibles). After 18 years living it up on the Costa del Crime, they have returned to Britain – largely, you gather, because Barbara (Agutter) wants proper tea and Marks & Spencer – to live in luxury retirement apartments in a seaside town in Devon. But Syd's ne'er-do-well son is desperate for money, owing to a contrived and unfunny accident involving some expensive koi carp, and Maurice, while he can't stand the boy, is chafing at the bonds of age. Early on, he was shocked to realise that their new flat comes equipped with an emergency phone of a type advertised by Thora Hird. So, naturally, they decided to try one last job to see the boy clear.

Ivory does pull off a couple of minor reversals of expectation along the way. Their first job, which went disastrously wrong, turned out to have been a practice: the bloke they were burgling knew who they were, and was only shouting at them to make it seem authentic! And the seedy, over-friendly landlord of the local pub turned out to be the son of their long-deceased partner, eager to take over Dad's business. But the gags about the effects of age are even more arthritic than our heroes, and no sentient being could have been remotely surprised by the ending, which had the trio toasting the rebirth of their criminal careers. Plausibility hasn't been a high priority, either. Returning from a night's breaking and entering, Maurice insisted to his wife (who wants to stay respectable) that they'd been making a night of it at a curry house, and she, despite being self-evidently close enough to smell his non-curry breath, swallowed this. More dispiriting still is the way the programme sanitises crime: back in Maurice and Syd's day, you gather, criminals had a bit of class, not like the thugs you get today. Sure, and they never hurt anyone but their own, and you didn't have to lock your doors and yadda yadda. Even the modern thuggishness we're exposed to seems peculiarly harmless. Having been punched in the face by a younger thug and their heads slammed on a concrete floor, Syd and Maurice didn't have a mark on them. After The Sopranos, which showed you what violence really does, that portrayal of it as cost-free seemed mildly obscene.

It was a bit of a night for new series beginning with "In", the other contender being The Inbetweeners, the first comedy specially produced for the digital channel E4. Again, this is not breaking new ground. It's about the trials of being 16, of wondering what sex is like, of hoping none of your friends spot that you don't know what sex is like, and of trying to get served in pubs. The central character is Simon Bird's Will, a posh, swotty boy starting a new school, walking the corridors to a hum of sneers at his clothes, his shoes, his hair, his prissy briefcase, the simple fact that he is an outsider. I don't know about you, but I was like Proust with the madeleines here, and therefore prepared to indulge Damon Beesley and Iain Morris's uneven dialogue. It would be interesting to know who E4 thinks the target audience is. Presumably not 16-year-olds, to whom the business of being 16 is deadly serious. Perhaps it is us middle-aged types, for whom the pain and embarrassment is now distant enough to be laughable. Or almost.