The Week in Arts: Keep sitcoms free from social responsibility

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Richard Curtis is, of course, best known as a massively successful comedy writer -
Blackadder,
Four Weddings, etc. He is less well known for his charity work, but that is also impressive. His stewardship of Comic Relief is the public side; his large donations from his own income take place behind the scenes.

Richard Curtis is, of course, best known as a massively successful comedy writer - Blackadder, Four Weddings, etc. He is less well known for his charity work, but that is also impressive. His stewardship of Comic Relief is the public side; his large donations from his own income take place behind the scenes.

But, this week the two sides of Richard Curtis, comedy and charity, came together in a way which made me uneasy. It was reported that Third World poverty, a subject Mr Curtis cares passionately about, will feature more in his work. Indeed, in the New Year's Day episode of The Vicar of Dibley, the vicar, played by Dawn French, will refuse presents for her 40th birthday and ask her friends to give money to the Third World instead.

I hope it doesn't sound too uncharitable of me if I say: "Laugh? I almost did." It's just that it strikes me that this would be like Tony Hancock in the Blood Donor episode famously protesting: "A pint! That's nearly an armful!" And then going on to say: "But our hospitals need blood. Take all you can, my good man."

Television has, of course, long been a vehicle for social messages and social education. Soaps such as EastEnders have dealt with everything from homosexuality to bereavement and addiction. But dramas are one thing; sitcoms are another.

Jennifer Saunders' Edina would no doubt have urged the Dibley parishioners to transfer all their gifts to her. Saunders' Edina and French's vicar are different animals. But they both inhabit sitcoms where the viewer expects the slightly anarchic, the subversive. Do people have to do the right thing and act from the best motives in comedy? If one area of television can be free from social responsibility, then surely it should be the sitcom.

Before me are visions of Steptoe and Son taking stuff out to the recycling bin; of Basil Fawlty giving his guests an organic food option on the menu; of David Brent insisting that his co-workers take regular screen breaks.

I will watch The Vicar of Dibley on New Year's Day with interest and a little trepidation. I hope I crack a smile. It's hard not to when Richard Curtis is involved; and I'm sure he has plenty of tricks up his sleeve. But please, please, let us not on New Year's Day or any other day have a sitcom that is followed by one of those sober announcements of the number to ring if you want to discuss the issues raised.

Do a Portillo and ignore the obvious

Theatre reviewing seems to be treated rather differently from any other art form. The Daily Mail now has its political sketch writer in the stalls at night. The Spectator famously employed as its critic someone who confessed he did not know where the National Theatre was. But the most curious choice of critic is that of the former Tory cabinet minister Michael Portillo for the left-wing New Statesman.

Mr Portillo begins his full-page Review of the Year in the magazine by mentioning that he hasn't actually got round to seeing either Alan Bennett's The History Boys or Mel Brooks's The Producers (pictured) yet. Quite how do you review a year without the year's two most praised productions? It's akin to a rock critic neglecting to listen to the U2 and Eminem albums or a film reviewer washing her hair on the nights of Bridget Jones and Harry Potter.

At least the MP turned theatre reviewer has contributed a phrase to the critic's lexicon. From now on any who neglect to review the most blindingly obvious choices can be said to be "doing a Portillo".

¿ I noted the other week that the return of pop group Frankie Goes to Hollywood without its lead singer and best known name Holly Johnson was something of a con on the ticket-buying public. It was one of the worst examples of the dubious practice of bands re-forming and selling tickets without the person most associated with them.

But whenever you think you have found the most extreme example, an even more outrageous one comes along. This week The Boys Are Back in Town tour by Thin Lizzy was announced. Not all the boys are back, of course. Phil Lynott, singer, driving force and public face of the great rock outfit, died a long time ago. "The boys are back?" Only for those with no rock history at all.

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