Comedy and the numbers game

The week on television

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Television has a funny way of making the oldest shows look young, and the youngest old. Actually, it's not that funny. Countdown (C4, Fri) was 2,000 editions old this week. Late Review (BBC2, Thurs) reached 100. And, last night, Sunnyside Farm (BBC2, Fri) doddered and limped up to the grand old age of six episodes. The funniest thing about Sunnyside Farm is that it may yet get a second series. And if you're giving something a second series, you might as well follow that up with a third. And, before you know it, someone will be dubbing it a classic that just needed time to mature.

For the moment, though, people in senior positions in the BBC's comedy directorate are deciding whether the bucolic sitcom should be allowed to make it to seven. It presumably looked much livelier on paper but, realised on the screen, it falls victim to that uncertainty of tone that is the tripwire every sitcom has to step over. Sure, it has delivered enough satisfying one-liners to reach the bare minimum of comic competence. But it hasn't been able to stop itself giving the appearance of trying too hard to make an impression.

The plotline of last night's episode involved a love affair between the imbecile Ken and a drop-dead-gorgonesque Bolivian nyphomaniac. She has very loud, through-the-floorboard orgasms. "What's the matter?'' wonders Wendy, an English rose who wouldn't recognise a sexual convulsion unless it came from a crochet pattern book. "Is she in pain?'' Not unfunny, unless you're an English rose who wouldn't recognise etc etc... But when poor old Phil Daniels, playing Ken's brother Ray, realises what the two love birds are up to, he gets to utter the deathless punchline: "Aha! The penny, and her knickers, have dropped.'' With gags like that, the series deserves to make the same vertical descent.

Channel 4, meanwhile, has seen the light over Roseanne (C4, Wed). Suffering hideously painful death throes in late-night exile, it demonstrates the perils of not knowing when to call it a day. But it's worth noting that the channel's love affair with US sitcom has its continuing blind spots. Cybill (C4, Fri), which seemed so sassy and assured in its first series, has long since succumbed to limping along with an incurable case of gout. Whereas Friends will thread three small but perfectly formed plotlines through its network of characters, Cybill is reliant for all its comedy on the lead character's attempts to retain her dignity during menopause. Last night's running gag involved the shocking state of Cybill's tresses after she took a job in a commercial for some hair product. Sometimes you can look at a joke from several sides and see new things to laugh at. But not this time. Again, there was just enough nourishment to keep you from starving. Cybill's daughter Zoey has just come back from holiday. "So tell us all about Europe," says the sad scamp Maryann. "What did they show on the plane?'' You just hope for Zoey's sake it wasn't a recent edition of this sitcom.

When the moment comes to go belly up, Countdown will surely have the good sense to recognise it. The celebratory 2,000th edition, based somewhat on This is Your Life and much given to sniggering at the changing design features of Carol Vorderman's hair, was probably the least distinguished moment in the show's 15-year history. The great strength of Countdown is that it doesn't behave like a television programme. There is something likeably amateurish about Richard Whiteley's unscripted links, about the half-hearted, parodic joshing between him and Vorderman. Its other strength is that it is the only programme on daytime television (and possibly evening television) that not only celebrates the mental agility of the contestants but encourages its audience to exercise theirs.

The most characteristic bit of the tribute programme, in which the two presenters were allowed to say barely a thing, came when Lord Attenborough raised a glass to the show's longevity. Or rather, he would have done if the budget ran to one champagne flute and a bottle of spumante. Apparently, the list of those who applied for the brainbox job landed by Vorderman included the page three popsicles Linda Lusardi and Jilly Johnson. It would be an act of stereotyping as criminal as anything in Sunnyside Farm to assume that they wouldn't have been up to the number-crunching. But, asked to calculate their way to a target number of, say, 100, they would surely have needed 38-24-38 as a handrail.

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