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.

twitter.com/tds153

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on