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.
Game of Thrones
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 More than 11,000 Icelanders offer to house Syrian refugees to help European crisis
- 2 If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don't change Europe's attitude to refugees, what will?
- 3 Senior British politicians tell David Cameron: When dead children are being washed up on beaches – it's time to act
- 4 Make your voice heard: Sign The Independent's petition to welcome refugees
- 5 Refugee crisis: Aylan's life was full of fear - in death, he is part of 'humanity washed ashore'
The real reason Eddie Redmayne was cast as a trans woman in The Danish Girl
First Look at Bryan Cranston transformed into LBJ for HBO’s ‘All the Way’ film
Idris Elba is ‘too street’ to play 007, says James Bond author
This little boy loves books so much that he cries when his mother stops reading to him
Prog rock finally comes of age with launch of the first Official Progressive Chart
Climate change: 2015 will be the hottest year on record 'by a mile', experts say
Senior British politicians tell David Cameron: When dead children are being washed up on beaches – it's time to act
Jeremy Corbyn calls Osama bin Laden's killing a 'tragedy' - but was it taken out of context?
If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don't change Europe's attitude to refugees, what will?
If you're not already angry about the refugee crisis, here's a history lesson to remind you why you really should be
Theresa May says migrants should be banned from entering the UK unless they have jobs lined up