What is it?
The series opens with its protagonist, Mark Taylor (Robert Bathurst), performing a stand-up routine beginning with the words: “My wife left me.” A romcom in reverse, it starts with Mark’s separation from Becky (Fiona Gillies), and flashes back to their meeting and the earlier stages of their relationship. Much of the comedy is farce, as Mark tries to win Becky back, usually involving their friends Robert and Tracey (Paul Raffield, Tracie Bennett) and Becky’s lover Trevor (Paul-Mark Elliott).
Joking Apart ran for two series of six episodes each on BBC Two in 1993 and 1995.
Why was it good?
Joking Apart was Steven Moffat’s second TV series, after Press Gang, and his first sitcom. Believing that the second series of Press Gang would be its last (wrongly, it turned out), Moffat began pitching an idea for a sitcom set in a school, drawing on his own experiences as a teacher. His producer Andre Ptaszynski observed that in conversation he spoke far more passionately and engagingly about the divorce he was going through than about his proposed sitcom, and suggested he write about that instead.
The scripts contain Moffat’s trademarks in spades: intricate plots that close around the characters like a steel trap – in this case as excruciatingly acute farce, rather than timey-wimey story arcs – and relentless punchlines in almost every word of dialogue. The nature of the subject material means that the stakes are high for the characters from the get-go, which heightens both the drama and the comedy. The show also benefits from an excellent cast who sell all the characters to good effect.
Critics of Moffat’s ability to write women (a debate I don’t want to get much into, frankly) should have a look at this show: while Becky is the instigator of the end of the marriage, reflecting how Moffat’s own first marriage ended, she is often a more level-headed and sympathetic character than the angry and emotional Mark.
The penultimate episode particularly sticks in the mind: concussed after a knock to the head, Mark hallucinates a new friend, Dick, who seems to be the talking personification of his own penis. Dick accompanies him throughout the episode, with only Mark able to see him, offering a brutally frank and funny critique of male sexuality throughout, and eventually condemning Mark as a “brainhead” when he does the decent thing and turns down an inappropriate proposition.
Why is it underrated?
This is another sitcom whose subject matter will instantly alienate a chunk of the potential audience, its acidic and brutal treatment of it even more so. For those with a taste for it however, Joking Apart undoubtedly held a lot of appeal on broadcast.
Part of the reason why the show is remembered by some as a “lost classic” rather than “classic” without qualification was the problematic nature of its scheduling. There was a long delays between transmission of the two series: the second eventually aired in early 1995, two years after the first, the pilot having been shot in 1990, and lacked a stable time slot. Moffat has stated that because of this, this sitcom actually lasted slightly longer than the marriage it was inspired by.
For today’s audience, it’s got to be said that the use of Chris Rea’s Fool If You Think It’s Over as a title song massively and jarringly datestamps it to the early 1990s, though the comedy itself is fairly timeless.
Overall however, Joking Apart delivers a fine line in farce, some acute observations on relationships and an occasionally vicious finishing touch.
Can I watch it?
Rather pleasingly, both series are available on DVD thanks to the efforts of a fan, who bought the rights, digitally restored the episodes and set up his own independent DVD label purely to release the show (and he went on to release Moffat’s widely-maligned sitcom Chalk too – or at least its first series, before the recession bit and further releases became uneconomical).