TV Review: Sliding Doors

Whatever one thinks of people who do Monty Python sketches, with all the voices, John Cleese's involvement can't help but serve as a kind of comedy kitemark - an indication that the programme has been passed for quality
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Sliding Doors, a recent British romantic comedy, contains a scene in which the hero entertains the heroine by doing Monty Python sketches in the pub. Instead of slipping off to the loo to call a taxi she looks on in helpless giggling admiration. It is, incredibly, a scene played without irony. I'm relieved to say that when Monty Python made an appearance in Kiss Me Kate (BBC1) the full awkwardness of the moment had been recognised; Peter, Kate's therapy client, confesses to his anxiety about the forthcoming launch of John Cleese's autobiography, and inadvertantly triggers a one- woman celebration of the genius of Python. I imagine this scene might have tickled John Cleese too, who presumably read the script before agreeing to appear in a brief cameo. Whatever one thinks of people who do Monty Python sketches, with all the voices, Cleese's involvement can't help but serve as a kind of comedy kitemark - an indication that the programme has been passed for quality.

The guarantee is deserved in this case, because Kiss Me Kate is refreshingly tangential and nimble about its comedy. Last night's episode contained two dependable staples of the traditional sit-com - sexual and social embarrassment - but they were obliquely underplayed, with little of the pleading exaggeration that often afflicts sit-com writers. The pedigree helps here - John Morton and Chris Langham worked together on People Like Us, a very funny series of spoof radio documentaries which fully exploited Langham's sepulchral deadpan. But there is a simple craftsmanship at work too, one which will occasionally leave a loose end dangling so that it can be tied in place when the joke has had time to settle. When Kate is about to be introduced to her hero at that book launch, for example, she can't find anywhere to put down the vol-au-vent she is eating and ends by tossing it over her head. Much later, an after-the-party scene in the same location begins with a puzzled man pulling the object from his wife's bouffant and saying "How the hell did you manage that?" - a throwaway detail which reassured you that the writers were prepared to pay for their cheap gags.

It's also pleasant to watch a comedy in which so many characters are permitted their own sense of humour, rather than just made the humiliated victims of someone else's. Mark Heap, who plays a lovesick client of Caroline Quentin's Kate, is given a reprieve from his typecasting as a sad loser, by playing a sad loser who can be witty about the fact, and consequently wins quite a few of his exchanges. "I was looking at her the other night when she was asleep," he confesses about his absent wife, "and thinking `Do I really love this person?' and yes, I suppose I do". "So where's the problem?" asks Kate. "Well - every morning she wakes up", he replied ruefully. That line was far more knowing than anything the same actor is allowed as the voice of Eric Feeble, the central figure in Stressed Eric (BBC2), a British attempt at the kind of grown-up cartoon the Americans do so well. Eric is a single parent, struggling to raise his accident- prone children with the hindrance of a Spanish au pair. He has a pulsing vein on his temple which registers his exact state of tension, anywhere from frantic to suicidal. There's a lot that's good about Stressed Eric, including the cruel drawing style and the convincingly surly au pair, but the pace feels a little too slow, as if those involved are lingering until they're sure you haven't missed their favourite joke.

Last night's episode was set in a hospital waiting room and was unfortunate to follow a rather similar episode of The Simpsons - "Homer's Triple By- Pass Operation" - a comparison it couldn't overcome. I don't write about The Simpsons as often as I watch it because there's only so many times you can hear a hymn of praise without beginning to hate its object, but this was the series on good form. "They had a hell of a time replacing you," Homer is reassured by colleagues visiting him in hospital. Cut to an image of Homer's nuclear power plant work station, the all-important lever being held in place by a brick on the end of a string.

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