The Weekend's Television: The Old Guys, Sat, BBC1
Sissinghurst, Sun, BBC4
Plenty of laughter lines
Monday 09 March 2009
I've intended to write about The Old Guys twice before now and stayed my hand, the implication of restraint in that phrase not being entirely out of place.
The thing is that it was written by Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, the creators of Peep Show, and men who, as far as I'm concerned, have a lot in the bank in terms of laughs. They could be drawing down on their account for some time before they went into the red, so they were always going to get the benefit of the doubt with a new sitcom (even if that sitcom had been written before Peep Show and pushed into production by the success of its predecessor). On the other hand, there was quite a lot of doubt when I watched the early episodes. So more than once I thought I'd give it another week, the problem now being that I've run out of room to procrastinate. This week's episode was the last of the current series and it isn't clear that there's going to be a second one.
Interestingly, when I looked back at my notes of those earlier programmes I found that they made me laugh. Try this for size. Tom (slightly mad, feckless OAP) is persuading Roy (sensible, buttoned-up OAP) not to have anything to do with a psychiatrist: "Ignore him, Roy," he pleaded, "Call the psychic hotlines... at least they give you definite advice from ghosts." Or, if that didn't work, what about this, again from Tom. "I don't want to seem self-pitying but why does everything bad in the entire world happen to me?" What it was a little harder to say was whether they made me laugh because they're inherently funny, or because six weeks has given me time to get used to Roger Lloyd Pack's character, so I can now relish just how typical of him those lines are. That's one of the tricks a good sitcom has to pull off, after all, to get the audience to the stage where they feel affectionately knowing about a character's follies.
The essential dynamic – two ill-assorted blokes sharing a flat – is Peep Show with a bus pass. Occasionally, you can imagine lines of dialogue in Mark and Jeremy's mouths and see they would fit seamlessly. "I'm a man of the world, I carry a gun," said Tom, making a bid for authority as they prepare to go into a Soho bar. "No you don't!" Roy replied in exasperation. "Not an actual gun," Tom explained. "My gun is my mind." But without Peep Show's point-of-view camera and undercutting voiceovers, and with a studio audience laughtrack it feels a lot more conventional than the Channel 4 series. When the plot-lines are in any way Terry and June (as when the two men angle for an invitation to the sexy neighbour's party, for example) that can get in the way of the comedy.
In episodes like this one though – in which the two men found themselves competing for sole access to a Soho hooker– it's easier to see that the implausibilities of the situations don't really matter (as they never really did in Peep Show). What counts is the skewed stupidity of the lines, as when Tom's needy daughter tried to impress the sexy vicar she's got a thing for and came out with this: "You know the Bible has totally become my bible now." Or, indeed, the gaps between the lines. Roger Lloyd Pack got the biggest laugh here after consulting the same vicar for advice about the Christian position on call-girls. The vicar adopted the Socratic method: "If you pay a woman for sex is that going to make you closer to God or further away?" he asked thoughtfully. There was a long pause. "Closer?" said Tom, in tones that made it clear he hadn't a clue. There's another long, beautifully judged pause. "It's not closer... is it?" Sorry to leave it so late, but it turned out to be worth watching.
As is Sissinghurst, a BBC4 documentary that might be the premise for a sitcom itself, with its account of two well-born types trying to rub along with the National Trust staff who now run the ancestral home. Adam Nicolson and his wife, Sarah Raven, have returned to Sissinghurst to live as the "donor family", part of the original handover agreement. They want to take this rather important chunk of the National Trust empire in a slightly different direction, essentially trying to tune the engine while it's running at top speed, which makes everyone a bit nervous. This week, Adam finally got round to some very belated hearts-and-minds stuff, talking to some of the staff about their misgivings and conceding, in a very gracious way, that he hadn't understood that they have almost as much emotional investment in the place as he does. And Sarah won a small battle in the restaurant, persuading the head chef to let customers put their own vinaigrette on the salads. In this context, it was Waterloo all over again.
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