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TV review: Chickens - We’re the only men in the village...

A First World War sitcom may prove to be a slow burner, but the nation’s cakes are rising nicely

Rhiannon Harries
Saturday 24 August 2013 22:59 BST
Joe Thomas, Simon Bird and Johnny Sweet make their stand in Chickens
Joe Thomas, Simon Bird and Johnny Sweet make their stand in Chickens (Colin Hutton)

Much was made in promoting the first episode of new Sky1 sitcom Chickens of the fact that Channel 4 had had first refusal on the series and, well, refused it. C4 must reject tons of comedies, but few of those mark the writing debut of the stars of not one, but three successful shows. Joe Thomas and Simon Bird, both of The Inbetweeners and then, respectively, Fresh Meat and Friday Night Dinner, seem quite chirpy about the initial setback, putting it down to their ubiquity in the Channel 4’s comedy stable. That could be one reason, but another is that Chickens is just a little bit weak.

Here the pair have joined forces with old Cambridge uni pal, actor and stand-up Jonny Sweet. As well as writing, they all star in this First World War sitcom, which imagines the fates of three young men who escape conscription to stay at home in a village populated only by decidedly contemptuous women. Thomas is hen-pecked George, a conscientious objector whose fiancée forces him to help her draft flirty missives to her soldier penpals, while Bird plays pompous Cecil, supposedly rejected on physical grounds (“flat feet”). Sweet is nice-but-dim Bert, who keeps forgetting who the war is against and seems to have got out of it thanks to straight-forward cowardice. In this ineffectual trio of bickering frenemies there are strains of The Inbetweeners, but with some Mumford and Sons vintage styling. The tweed and twiddly moustaches suggests they were inspired by the recent vogue for all things chap-ish that peaked a while back and now looks dated rather than retro.

All three are as likeable as you’d expect based on their previous turns and they have a natural, punchy dynamic. Bird and Thomas do a great line in resignation to humiliation and Sweet is the right side of Pimms o’clock caricature. I liked the anachronistic touches – while Cecil is press-ganged by the local women into darning socks for the front, Bert embroiders a handkerchief with “Cecil, Bert and George – Takin’ it easy 1914”. The hanky ends up in a predictable set piece though, and what’s missing, perhaps – especially since the trio say Sky offered them free rein – are a few darker or more surreal notes in all the frivolity. Barry Humphries is slated to appear in the next episode and I’m nursing the hope that, given time, Chickens might develop a bit more gutsily.

Vanessa Engle’s documentary Welcome to the World of Weightloss also drew us into a world largely dominated by women. Unfortunately, that was the slimming clubs that meet in churches and village halls up and down the country, the WeightWatchers and the Rosemary Conley clubs where weekly weigh-ins are accompanied by discussions of the calorie content of cottage cheese and military strategies for negotiating a buffet at a party.

Engle’s previous subjects have included pet-owners and Orthodox Jews and she can be relied upon for the best kind of TV documentary – a complex web of mini portraits rather than a glib grand narrative. In this spirit, we met a range of characters, few of whom had put on weight for the same reasons. Peckham sisters Joan and Sharon had learnt as children to associate rich foods with treats from their cash-strapped single mother. Semi-agoraphobic Hazel, bullied as a child, loathed her appearance so much that she barely left her house to get any exercise. And well-heeled Penny (literally – her boots were Chloé, her jumper was Miu Miu) reckoned her cushy Dulwich lifestyle simply meant that “I didn’t move my arse enough”.

For all of them, though, feelings of control – or lack thereof – were paramount. Though the slimming clubs emerged as enclaves of warmth and genuine support (although it’s worth remembering that these clubs are a lucrative business, too), the anxiety caused by food and the amount of brainpower devoted to it was depressing.

Mary Berry could launch a slimming club chain (in fact, during the first series of The Great British BakeOff, I actually thought she was Rosemary Conley). All those cakes, and here she is again for the third series, still able to belt her little top into her petite-range jeans! Nothing else has changed either, but that’s how we like it with this one, isn’t it? Nice normal people doing a nice, normal thing – if you consider it normal to lie on the floor staring into an oven or build a cake inspired by the Sagrada Familia. Spoiler alert: someone uses salt instead of sugar. That’s one way to keep the calories down.

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