Birds of a Feather, TV review: feathered friends return, but the Essex jokes no longer work

Thatcherite Essex was culturally relevant when 'Birds of a Feather' first aired, but after ten series of 'TOWIE' the milieu has become a cartoon parody

Gerard Gilbert
Friday 03 January 2014 00:00 GMT
Three's a crowd: Linda Robson, Lesley Joseph and Pauline Quirke in 'Birds of a Feather'
Three's a crowd: Linda Robson, Lesley Joseph and Pauline Quirke in 'Birds of a Feather' ( Retort/QuirkyMedia Stuff)

As comedy exhumations go, the re-boot of the once hugely popular Birds of a Feather (1989-98) seemed less archaeological than Boxing Day's disentombing of Roy Clarke's Open All Hours. On a practical note, none of its stars is dead – indeed Pauline Quirke, Linda Robson and Lesley Joseph have recently been touring the defunct sitcom as a successful stage show – useful rehearsal time for resuscitating Tracey, Sharon and Dorien for the small screen and perhaps one reason why this reunion didn't feel awkward in the slightest.

The other reason – and a major explanation of why the show was such a hit in its heyday – is the natural chemistry between the two lead actresses; they are entirely believable as sisters. In last night's episode, the estranged siblings – Sharon (Quirke) was back living in her Edmonton council block and Tracey (Robson) was still ensconced in her Chigwell mansion – bumped into each other at a book signing; author "Foxy Cohen" was signing copies of her erotic bestseller Sixty Shades of Green.

Spotting her bedraggled sister at a bus stop, Tracey took pity and offered her a lift home – a visit to Sharon's dingy flat allowing for the first of several lines with a recessionary flavour. "David Cameron says we're all in this together," said Sharon. "So how comes I haven't seen him down by the bins?"

Hardly side-splitting, but, increasingly, inequality could prove a pointed sub-text for writers Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran. The signs are however that any such observations will take a distant second place to some bad puns ("wee" and "Wii", for pity's sake) and the sisters' familiar put-downs of Dorien.

Indeed, having reassembled the household – "Foxy Cohen", it transpired, was Dorien's nom de plume and a writ for plagiarism engineered her reinstatement as Tracey's house-guest – it remains to be seen how Marks and Gran will take their sitcom forward.

Brash, moneyed and Thatcherite Essex was culturally relevant when Birds of a Feather first aired in 1989, but, after ten series of The Only Way Is Essex, the milieu has long since morphed into a cartoon parody. Perhaps Tracy could run as a UKIP councillor or Dorien, in an act of charity perhaps designed to win the approval of handsome young men, open a food bank. Don't hold your breath.

It's easy to see what's in it for ITV in reviving one of the BBC's most popular shows of the 1990s – there are few of the risks associated with starting something new, like Vicious or The Job Lot. And it's not impossible to revive a sitcom if it's done with intelligence and an eye for time passing, as Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais demonstrated when they moved The Likely Lads forwards after a break of seven years with Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?

But if Birds of a Feather becomes as hermetically sealed as Tracey's triple-glazing, my guess is that we'll tire of this threesome soon enough.

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