The Weekend's TV: The IT Crowd, Fri, Channel 4
Are You Having a Laugh - TV and Disability, Fri, BBC2
How to Build a Nuclear Submarine, Sun, BBC2
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There can’t be many sitcom characters as lovably innocent as Moss, the bespectacled nerd in The IT Crowd.
The problem is that innocence so easily shades over into stupidity and then our affection becomes a different, compromised thing. Bubbles, the dimwitted PA in Absolutely Fabulous, was lovable, I guess, but part of what we loved about her was her unerring ability to grasp the wrong end of the stick. Frank Spencer in Some Mothers Do Ave ’Emwas also lovable in his way, but there was a whisper of contempt somewhere in the mix. In both cases, we fondly felt our superiority enlarged by their cluelessness. Moss, though, is significantly different. We’re still laughing at him, rather than with him most of the time; but it’s not because he’s stupid exactly, just that his intelligence operates in a world several degrees to the left of the one the rest of us are in. There’s something touching about how unbesmirched he is, so that even jokes about his sexual inexperience confirm his standing as a holy fool. I love him anyway – and feel more cheerful as soon as I see his face.
He was on good form in the first of the new series of Graham Linehan’s comedy, sweetly attempting to be knowing and manly in order to help Roy through a bad relationship breakup, but flubbing it hopelessly because pretence of any kind is quite beyond him: “Women, eh!” he said, adopting his own weird version of a laddish posture, “Can’t live with them... Can’t find them sometimes”. And whereas both Roy and Jen are funny in ways that you can imagine inserted into more conventional (and lesser) comedies, Moss could only really exist here. He is, in Linehan’s script and Richard Ayoade’s brilliantly naïve delivery, a unique comic creation. It isn’t easy to back this up with evidence, to be honest. There are quotably funny lines in The IT Crowd (such as the boorish executive who is grievously disappointed to find that The Vagina Monologues isn’t a sex show: “You get there and it’s just women talking... it’s false advertising!”). But far more often, the laughs sit in the junction between dialogue and expression. I can’t think of any way to effectively paraphrase the long and delightful sequence in which Moss employs a game of Dungeons & Dragonsas emotional therapy, since most of it consisted of jokes not being made and the absurdity simply being relished. But it was very funny.
The IT Crowd also featured in Are You Having a Laugh – TV and Disability, thanks to an equally funny scene in which Roy is caught using a disabled toilet and lies his way out of embarrassment so effectively he ends up being loaded into a minibus with a group of wheelchair users and sent off to Manchester. A broad survey of how television has portrayed and reflected disability, Kate Monaghan’s programme began in an age when there was still something called the Central Council for the Care of Cripples and ended (roughly) with Channel 4’s Cast Offs, a drama presented as having got pretty much everything right. Well, perhaps, but I’m willing to bet that if somebody makes another survey documentary in 40 years’ time, its attitude to the disabled may look appallingly out of touch. Good intentions in these matters rarely exempt you from the disapproval of posterity. When Crossroads included a character in a wheelchair – the gravel-voiced Sandy – they probably felt they were striking a virtuous blow for visibility. Now all we can see is the transparency of the gambit and the fact that the actor was, as Matt Fraser trenchantly put it, “spazzing up”. Even today, the nuances are tricky. BBC News got a bit of a hard time here for the self-congratulatory display of Frank Gardiner’s wheelchair, though one imagines everyone present would have been even crosser if it had been hidden away. And the pieties about never laughing at disability, but only at attitudes to it, can’t be relied on either, since more than one of the disabled performers here made the point that being exempted from ridicule was just as much a discrimination as being singled out for it.
How to Build a Nuclear Submarine struck you as a programme title that might attract the attention of MI5. This isn’t the kind of information you want to broadcast, is it, given that any old rogue state might be watching? Fortunately this oddly triumphal and celebratory account of one section of Britain’s arms trade wouldn’t have been a lot of help to North Korean satellite viewers. It will cost you a billion pounds to make a knock-off copy, and since it was compared to “a 7,000 ton Swiss watch”, it’s likely to be beyond the capabilities of even advanced hobbyists. The programme started well – you don’t very often get to hear a man saying, “I’m in charge of purchasing submarines for the Ministry of Defence” – but though the statistics and scale of the enterprise were impressive, the promotional-video reluctance to ask any awkward questions began to grate after a while. “We need this submarine... we absolutely need this submarine!” said the admiral responsible for taking delivery, but he never explained why it was needed with such urgency and exactly what role it would play in a world where men with backpacks on the London Tube are the most imminent threat to national security. But it was gratifying to learn that for your billion pounds you get iPod chargers fitted as standard. No sunroof option, for obvious reasons.
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