Television: review

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Woks, should you be thinking of writing a sitcom, appear to have made it on to one of those unofficial lists of funny objects. Time was when an errant boyfriend would have been brained with a saucepan and the great British audience, uncorrupted by cosmopolitan fads, would have been perfectly contented. Now "wok" is funnier, or at least deemed to be so. In Sometime Never (ITV), the second of Carlton's tryout sitcoms, Max (a woman) actually waved a dented wok around, to emphasise the effect, while in Nelson's Column (BBC1), somebody was described as "having as much natural talent as a wok".

Actually, the latter gag wasn't bad in context and not entirely inappropriate, as it was part of a sustained rant by Gavin's father, who had accompanied him on an assignment to interview a table-tennis prodigy. After enduring a few minutes of paternal boasting and desultory ping-ponging, his patience broke -"I've lived in China for six years," he yelled in exasperation, "and they're all better than her - all three billion of them. Even Deng Xiao Ping could give her a thrashing." Gavin put him right about journalistic practice as they left in disgrace - "It was an interview," he explained, "You're supposed to be gently probing and polite. . . then when you get back to the office you slag them off."

But then Nelson's Column is funny, in a laid-back sort of way. Some of its misapprehensions are a little laboriously contrived - as when Gavin pretends to be the editor in order to impress his father - but the performances are winningly unhysterical and the comedy isn't entirely dependent on the obliging stupidity of the characters.

Sometime Never was a touch more complicated. I confess that I didn't think I was going to make it past the opening five minutes. First of all we were required to accept that a women wouldn't recognise her mother's voice on the phone and would also have forgotten her own birthday. Then you had to endure one of those "Shut up! No, no, not you" routines - all of which suggested that we had entered the oxygen-starved world of traditional British sitcom, where brains work slower or not at all. (Good American sitcoms, like Roseanne and Ellen, are predicated on the intelligence of their central characters, not their idiocy - they like even their losers to be winners, I guess.) It didn't help much, either, that I knew the script was by Jenny Lecoat, a comic whose stand-up routine I usually find as funny as cranial assault with a traditional Chinese cooking vessel.

But it was better than these dismal auguries suggested - even nicely oblique at times: "Does Pearl Harbor mean anything to you," says Max at one point, "1941... they bombed hell out of... ". "I know, I know," interrupts Bernice, "Montgomery Clift was in it." "Jump the gun!" shrieks Max, after her boyfriend suggests that moving in together is a bit precipitate, "I'm 31! My gun went off when I was 17."

If there is a problem, it isn't with the script (not all of it anyway) but with central performances that don't quite have the necessary assurance of tone, flickering between loss of control (the British comic staple) and sardonic self-possession. The lines know they're jokes but the voices don't always - so that what should be lithe and understated turns out brittle and flustered instead. It's probably fixable, though, if they get a chance to overcome the first night nerves.

I am indebted to Dafydd (BBC2), the first of a series of short plays from Wales, for teaching me that the Welsh for "Alright then" appears to be "Orright then". I'm not sure that I'm indebted to it for much else, though it was perfectly "orright" in its way - a gloomy tale of a Welsh rent-boy in Amsterdam, which was short on dialogue and long on portentous mood. The narrative was conveyed in a series of disconnected scenes which may have been why you never felt emotionally plugged in.

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