Last Night's Viewing: Up the Women, BBC4 Playhouse Presents: Psychobitches, Sky Arts 1

 

There was an unnerving moment in the first episode of Up the Women when it looked as if Jessica Hynes might have contracted a bad case of Eltonitis, an inflammation of the funny bone that can render even the most talented writers temporarily witless.

It occurred when Gwen unveiled the Banbury Intricate Craft Circle's new banner, revealing what appeared to be an embroidered border of rampant cocks. The ladies blinked, startled. "What's that?" someone asked. "Penis," replied Gwen. They blinked again. "Peonies," said Gwen, a little more clearly. "I've never seen one that big," someone else murmured. "Oh I have," said Mrs Von Heckling, whose comic trope is superannuated eroticism. Everything about the scene made the heart sink: the implausible misunderstanding, the coarseness, the comic cliché of the lubricious older woman.

Fortunately, it turned out to be completely (and inexplicably) unrepresentative, as if a different writer entirely had somehow tampered with the script and everybody involved was too embarrassed to point it out. Because elsewhere, Hynes pulls off the trick of writing an old-fashioned ensemble comedy very well indeed.

Her basic setting, a church hall that is the regular meeting place for the Banbury Intricate Craft Circle, summons memories of Dad's Army and there's something familiar too about the comic characterisation, as neatly differentiated as a box of crayons. There's a guileless one, a bossy one, a drab one and a resentful one. And then there's Margaret, newly inflamed with suffragette principles and trying to persuade the other members of the BICC to take up this dangerously radical cause.

Hynes has some easy fun with the past's silly inability to imagine the present. "Women in trousers! Driving motor cars! Is that what you want?" asks the scandalised Helen at one point, and Margaret reflexively winces in horror at the idea that she might be taken as such an extremist.

But those jokes are accompanied by lots of others that are more glancing and unexpected, and by the kind of comedy that isn't easily quotable – looks exchanged and things left unsaid. There's a nice running gag about Margaret's reflexive tendency to conceal her intelligence whenever a man enters the room, but the whole cast give off the confidence of actors who know precisely who and what they're meant to be, and so can polish their performance with something extra.

You could be forgiven for thinking that Psychobitches, Sky Arts 1 new comedy series, is an all-female affair. It isn't, though nobody gets on screen without dragging up, the essential conceit being that the patient list for Rebecca Front's psychotherapist is composed entirely of famous women from history. Some of them have come to do some work on a family relationship, such as the Brontë sisters, bickering furiously in a row on the couch.

Others are working on more private problems, including Audrey Hepburn, who is having difficulty finding the fine line between being charming and infuriating. And it's very funny. As Hepburn, Samantha Spiro is terrific, winsomely inviting Front's weary therapist to play imaginary ping-pong. But Julia Davis is good too as Sylvia Plath, who excitedly confides that she's been experimenting with writing in a different persona: "Oh I wish I'd looked after me toes/ Not treated them like they were foes," she reads perkily, before black despair gradually edges out Pam Ayres.

The writing is often excellent – Charlotte Brontë's furious complaint that her oversexed sister is "frothing like a beck in a storm" seemed oddly plausible – and even the spaces between the sketches are drily funny (Jeremy Dyson directs). But it would be unfair not to give due credit to a performer who could easily get overlooked, since she's the foil and not the funny woman: Rebecca Front gets bigger laughs doing virtually nothing here than some of her co-stars do with a string of punchlines.

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