THE CRITICS : Always look on the black side of life


In slickness and in health, Bill Cosby reigns serene. In more than 30 years as one of the top people in his field, the man who was Dr Huxtable had never got around to performing on this side of the Atlantic. When the time finally comes to make his London debut, he jets in without so much as a single sycophantic retainer in tow, has dinner with some friends, brings a dressed-up-to-the-11s Royal Albert Hall to its feet with two hours of elegantly crafted domestic discontentment, then meanders off home again without so much as a word to Richard and Judy.

Happily married and in the throes of a sumptuously well-provided-for early retirement, you might think Cosby would not have much to complain about, but that would be to miss an important point. It's complaining that has got him where he is today. So it's strange that so many people have expressed concern about his plans for an American version of One Foot in the Grave: it's the children in The Cosby Show who are nauseatingly cute - the old man can out-grump the best of them. And therein, strangely enough, lies Bill Cosby's political importance. In establishing that black Americans can have little problems as well as big ones, he has been a soft-shoe subversive rather than the social-climbing sell-out of critical imagining.

Watching Cosby on stage in this country for the first time, it is easy to see what made Richard Pryor admire him so much that (as Pryor confesses in his recent autobiography) he devoted the early years of his career to imitating him. The subject matter - driving disagreements, his family's love of fried food ("My father's heavily larded sperm hit my mother's heavily greased egg ...") - is as familiar as an old slipper, but the easy elegance of its delivery and desiccated cool of Cosby's endless rhetorical flourishes are unique.

It's not all good wholesome fun either. Cosby's celebration of intra- marital flatulence strays into realms where even Billy Connolly might fear to tread. And his piece de resistance is the longest and most graphic description of a prostate check-up ever attempted in a British theatre: the midst of a stool examination, apparently, is "the only time when black is not beautiful".

Down at the Riverside Studios' Channel 4 Sitcom Festival, the Cosby Shows of the future emerge blinking into the light. Or something like that. As an aesthetic innovation, the idea of putting three triple bills of would-be sitcoms on the stage seems problematic (what next - David Baddiel writing a novel?), but the results are intriguing. If only for the way they illuminate the subtle contrasts in theatre and sitcom's different forms of restriction.

When each of the first trio of comedy playlets runs over its allotted half-hour, there is a genuine sense of outrage (at least if destiny traps you into watching The Upper Hand, you know when it's going to finish). And the most authentically sitcom-type emotions of exquisite social embarrassment are generated not by anything that happens on stage, but by a baby in the audience gurgling at inappropriate moments.

Neither Marcy Kahan's agonising opener Kerouac (a female central character named after the author of On the Road? No stop it please, you're killing us) nor Patrick Barlow's workmanlike Game On-meets-The Flintstones finale Basic Instincts offers much hope for the future, but Tunde Babalola's In Exile seems to have what it takes. As Meat Loaf once sang, one out of three ain't bad. This harrowing saga of a deposed African dictator making a new life for himself in St John's Wood with only an ambitious personal assistant, a son who wants to be a dancer and a video of The Lion King for company achieves just the right balance of enclosure and escape.

Channel 4 Sitcom Festival: Riverside, W6 (0181 741 2255), Wed-Sat, to 27 Jul.

Arts and Entertainment
tvThe C-Word, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
Life and Style
The original ZX Spectrum was simple to plug into your TV and get playing on
techThirty years on, the ZX Spectrum is back, after a fashion
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

    £28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

    £16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

    Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

    £16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

    Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

    £17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

    Day In a Page

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk