TV

BBC sitcom season – could it have done more?

Back when the BBC announced its sitcom season, which after much anticipation begins transmission this weekend, I planned a post lamenting the conservatism of the choices of shows to be featured and suggesting some shows that might have been more interesting – if challenging – options. This needs a bit of revision now: for one thing, one of my suggestions actually got announced as a late addition to the line-up; and one of my suggestions of ‘probably too difficult’ shows became genuinely impossible.

20160827 AYBSBut also, I don’t want to write a whinge. Whatever its flaws, the season is going to present an interesting blend of spin-offs, remakes and continuations of old shows, recreations of now lost episodes, and of course a series of new pilots. But it comes at a time when the sitcom is in the doldrums in terms of mass ratings (when a sitcom does make it into the week’s most viewed programmes, it’s usually a repeat of Dad’s Army), albeit definitely not in terms of quality (Uncle, Fleabag and, beyond the BBC, Plebs and Drifters are all doing great business). A spotlight on the genre will be welcome if it can kick-start one or more new series for the future – although there’s undoubtedly the danger that it might accidentally reinforce the idea that it was better in ‘the old days’.

Also, the season continues the process of challenging how we think of a TV show: as something that runs for a few seasons and then is over. But why shouldn’t the story be picked up again years later (after all, Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads did it 40 years ago; Are You Being Served? got its own follow-up, Grace and Favour; and Shelley was revived successfully in the ‘90s)? Or why shouldn’t the same characters be revisited with different writers and casts? Bands re-form and songs get covered, so why not do the TV equivalents? This season isn’t unique on current TV in doing this, of course: Birds of a Feather has been revived on ITV, Red Dwarf on Dave and Yes, Minister (perhaps ill-advisedly) on Gold; plus the most prominent (only?) example of a show revived on its original channel, Still Open All Hours. Drama is being similarly developed, with Cold Feet back soon, the Upstairs Downstairs revival being rather better than it as generally credited with and, of course, Doctor Who still the grandaddy of all revivals (though the wretched This Life +10 shows that dangers of this kind of exercise… and the less said about wartime-set Eastenders prequel Civvy Street, the better).

20160827 porridgeThat said, the conservatism of the choices is a bit of a pity. Wherever the idea of a ‘golden age’ of TV and, by extension, a ‘golden age’ of sitcoms came from, it remains pervasive: only two shows selected were created after the 1970s. So I had a little think and came up with a list of potentially more interesting choices, mostly more recent. If the season is meant to celebrate sixty years of the BBC sitcom, after all, it seems odd to ignore the last two or three decades.

Tempting though it was to list some relatively unpopular or unsuccessful shows that I have a soft spot for (Clone, Badults, Josh…), I’ve tried to keep it both feasible and focused on successful shows – although, for fun, I have a list of not-quite-possible as well…

Part One: Shows the BBC could and perhaps should have included

Goodnight Sweetheart
20160827 sweetheartThis is the one that needed re-writing, of course – and very welcome that is. My original thought was that, 17 years on, Gary is living in 1962, and the modern world would seem as alien to him as the 1940s did when he first went down Duckett’s Passage. This seems very much the approach the new show (pilot) is following, and I really hope it delivers.

Bluestone 42

It would have been great to see the squad back in Blighty, with a one-off story to round things off, perhaps as was done to such good effect with Pulling (and I’m under the impression the writers had an idea for the 4th series – I’d love to see those characters away from Afghanistan).

The League of Gentlemen
20160827 leagueWith Inside Number 9 and Crooked House, the League’s writers have excelled at one-off storytelling… a single-episode revival for Rosyton Vasey would be tempting, surely?

Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps
20160827 Two PintsThe flagship show for its channel in its day, remember. The final series ended on a cliffhanger, having only just been re-booted with new characters. It deserves a proper ending.

Early Doors
EARLY DOORS_EP4You could easily do a one-off episode of this: ten years on and nothing in The Grapes has changed!

Hi-De-Hi!
20160827 hiObviously this couldn’t be a straight continuation, but how about a prequel set in the golden age of holiday camps, showing maybe Ted and Gladys earlier in their Maplin’s careers?

White Van Man
wvmpromo-4OK, there’s not a specific case for reviving this as such, I just think it should have got a third series.

It Sticks Out Half A Mile
20160827 armyNow, bear with me here. This was a radio follow-up to Dad’s Army, in which some of the former Home Guard platoon buy and operate the pier at Walmington-on-Sea. Originally to star Arthur Lowe as well as others, it was re-cast to feature Bill Pertwee’s Warden Hodges when Lowe died after recording the pilot. The Dad’s Army characters have recently been re-cast twice, for the movie and the BBC’s ‘We’re Doomed!’, so any taboo about that has been broken – and both ventures had some extremely good re-casting that could be cherry-picked to bring this radio show to the screen for the first time.

Part Two: Non-runners, but it’s nice to think about

Coupling
20160827 couplingSteven Moffat left his thoughts for where the characters ended up on Outpost Gallifrey… could he pick it up ten years on from that? One question though is what the basis of the humour would be, now that, presumably, they’re all settled? As far as I can see, the show is simply over.

The Likely Lads
The feud between Bewes and Bolam, which dates back to just after the completion of the Likely Lads film, would probably rule this out. But would we like to see what Bob and Terry are like in old age, wandering around modern-day Newcastle and grumbling about Sage Gateshead? I think so!

Sorry!
20160827 SorryThis is the one that, sadly, is now a total write-off. But while Ronnie Corbett was still alive, I was going to suggest, it would have been fascinating to see what Timothy Lumsden was like in old age. If the joke originally was that, in his 40s, he was still essentially a schoolboy, perhaps in his dotage he’d be nearly ready for a mid-life crisis? Though to be fair, that’s quite close to the original premise of Last of the Summer Wine (which had its own prequel, of course… it’s really not such a big deal, this sitcom spin-off business, is it?).

Ever Decreasing Circles
20160827 circlesThis is a show where the lead actor is no longer with us but two of the key supporting cast members are. If the show were to be revisited perhaps a melancholic character-led reunion of Paul and Ann, reflecting on the memory of Martin, could work… but, arguing against myself, without Martin getting annoyed by Paul, there’s really no show. Plus, there is a precedent for revisiting a successful show with just the supporting cast – The Legacy of Reginald Perrin – which is probably more of a warning than a recommendation (and let’s also note that sadly we’ve lost Stanley Lebor as Howard too). Then again, maybe a prequel could be workable – why did Martin turn out like he did? And what did happen between Martin and Ann in Kidderminster…?

All images copyright BBC.

TV Times – omnibus edition

This is a compilation of all the editions of one of my favourite features from my radio shows over the summer – my TV Times, which was basically a showcase for lots of great TV theme tunes, with some blather about them afterwards from me. It wasn’t deliberate, but with hindsight I was almost certainly taking inspiration from TV Cream’s long-running theme tunes vote-off, and the inimitable Dream Themes.

All the editions were put together by category, some looser than others. Here’s a run-down of all the themes featured (for proper credits, see the Mixcloud listing).

June 29th – all the Bs
Bergerac
Blockbusters
Bugs

July 13th – children’s shows
Round the Twist
The Wind in the Willows
Dark Season
The Secret Service

July 27th – railway-related shows (Indietracks special)
The 8:15 From Manchester
The Train Now Departing
6:05 Special

August 10th – sitcoms
The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin
Shelley
The Two Of Us
Dream Stuffing
Reggie Perrin

August 24th – 90s US drama
Due South
The X-Files
Buffy the Vampire Slayer

September 7th – gameshows
Interceptor
Mastermind
Gladiators
The Krypton Factor
Treasure Hunt

September 21st (1) – 90s UK drama
Jeeves and Wooster
Class Act
Hamish Macbeth
This Life
Neverwhere

September 21st (2) – anything goes!
The Man from UNCLE
UFO
Hi-De-Hi
Howards’ Way
Agatha Christie’s Poirot
Miss Marple

Ten things about the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who

Stunt Doctor and the TARDIS high above Trafalgar SquareA recent thread in Roobarb’s, one of the relatively sensible cult TV forums, was headed “Fifty years of grumbling – why do we love Doctor Who so much?” And it’s true that fandom of Doctor Who – or any cult show – can often feel very negative. One of the definitions of a ‘cult’ TV series is that it is of interest to its fans over and above its role as a TV series: that is, fans don’t just care what happens next, they care how it is made and who’s involved. When the show is great, they feel happy and proud beyond the normal enjoyment of enjoying a bit of TV; when the show lets them down, it’s painful. So a lot of what has happened this year regarding Doctor Who has mattered a lot to a lot of people – more than it rationally should. This is my take on ten of the things that have gone on.

All in all, it’s undeniably been a good year to be a dedicated Doctor Who fan, particularly for veterans of the 90s wilderness years, who should be able to get even the negatives into perspective. What’s more debatable is whether it’s been a good year to be a keen regular viewer of Doctor Who. But let’s start with the good stuff…

The Day / Night / Time of the Doctor
dayIn many ways it now seems that the entire Matt Smith era has been constructed by Steven Moffat to lead up to the 50th anniversary special and subsequent Christmas special. Moffat stated at the time of Matt Smith’s departure that three series plus these two specials was always the plan, albeit that he tried to persuade Matt to stay longer – this certainly explains the decision to spread out the 2012 series across two years, as the alternative would have been to go into the fiftieth anniversary year with a new and untested Doctor, which would undeniably have been a high risk plan.

Taking the specials as a package with the three series before them, they’re an impressive run of sci-fi storytelling of the sort that one normally associates with American shows. The Christmas finale did indeed tie up the outstanding plot points from the previous series, as well as resolving the “twelve regenerations” problem, for the next few decades at least. It met with a markedly mixed reaction though – Roobarb’s was utterly split on it, which is very unusual as normally it’s very warm towards the new series, and I gather it got the show’s lowest audience appreciation index figure since 2006. Perhaps it didn’t add up to much beyond the resolution of existing plotlines and catalyst for a regeneration – there was little to it beyond those aspects, and the fact that it stood alone rather than coming at the end of a series that had been building to it maybe meant that approach worked a bit less well than it might have done. As a finale to an era though, I thought it was great – anyone watching the whole Smith run as a boxset binge will find it a satisfying ending.

Far less difficult was The Day of the Doctor, which was superb. Yes it had its fanwank elements – a new ‘secret’ Doctor, the time war business – but an anniversary special will inevitably delve into the mythology. David Tennant gave one of his best performances as the Doctor, and his interplay with Matt Smith was great. It also managed to have a convincing epic feel while ultimately being character-driven and still light enough to remain watchable throughout. In one of the online quasi-Confidential videos, Moffat remarks that it’s with scripts like this that he really earns his money, and he’s not wrong – it’s hard to see what other writer could have delivered such a rich yet nimble script for the anniversary.

McGann

Finally, Paul McGann’s on-screen return in the mini-episode The Night of the Doctor was very well deserved. Through his audio performances for Big Finish he has proved himself an accomplished Doctor (indeed, his audio adventures alongside Sheridan Smith’s Lucie Miller count as some of my favourite Doctor Who in any medium), and his lovely turn here really underlines how we were robbed by the failure to make a series starring him (though if it had come from the production team behind the TV movie, unfortunately it would probably have been pretty ropey).

Overall the episodes of November and December did a great job of celebrating the show, rounding off an era and setting Doctor Who up for the future. Very well done.

The casting of Peter Capaldi
CapaldiI shouted “yes!” out loud and I know I wasn’t alone. It still seems hard to believe that such an accomplished actor would come to Doctor Who with such a great career behind him, so little to prove and, really, so much at stake should it go wrong. But on reflection it does make sense: Capaldi is now relatively late into his career (not all that late of course, one hopes), yet he’s never had a truly household name type role – yes, there’s Malcolm Tucker, but that’s very much post-watershed and ultimately The Thick of It remains a relatively niche interest show. Breaking the Tucker association and taking on such a popular role, rather than representing a risk or step back for Capaldi, could crown his career. Word is that Moffat also plans a shift of tone for his era, the key word being gritty rather than fairytale, so it should be exciting.

Also, for all the moaning that they’ve cast another white man, let’s not overlook the significance of casting someone of Capaldi’s age: if he does the now-traditional three years plus specials to stretch his run to four, he’ll become the oldest actor ever to play the part (he’s already the oldest since 1974) – and the online reaction from younger fans shows that having a mature actor in the part is a big deal, perhaps more so for some than casting a woman, for instance, would have been.

The departure of Matt Smith
Matt SmithWell the rumours were swirling from early in the year, and I (sadly, in many ways) drew the conclusion that Matt was on his way some time before Ian Levine spilt the beans and forced the BBC into a rush announcement. While three years plus specials now looks like the standard deal, it’s really not all that long – a fourth full series from both Tennant and Smith would probably have been better. As it was, I was left wanting more both times – but maybe that’s the skill.

If anything, I felt Matt’s performance surpassed David Tennant’s (minority view, I know): he brought a more marked off-beat, alien tone to it – as Moffat has remarked, despite being the youngest actor in the role, he took it back to the ‘eccentric scientist’ aspect first envisaged for it in the sixties, and really did convince as an old man in a young man’s body. Both he and Tennant got a bit bigger and more shouty in their performances towards the end of their eras – a reflection of the writing as well as their own instincts – and I preferred their earlier more reflective performances. One nice thing is that Matt seems to have been turned into a fan by being on the show, the first time that’s really happened; he’s been, and will surely remain, a great ambassador for the series as well as a great lead actor.

Doctor Who
If there’s been one less rewarding aspect of the anniversary year, it’s been Doctor Who. By which I mean that the series itself, outside the anniversary and story arc hoop-la, seemed to be firing on slightly less than all cylinders. As mentioned, I think the reason for the low episode count was almost certainly to eke out Matt Smith’s tenure to include the anniversary rather than because of any other rumoured cause – a falling-out between Smith and Moffat, a greater focus from the latter on Sherlock, budgetary problems and so on. That said, the rumours around Caroline Skinner’s undeniably sudden departure didn’t sound at all good, and were leant credence by an abrupt end to her high profile in promoting the show informally via Twitter.

A more meaningful problem was the decision to swing away from series six’s heavy arc-based approach by making every episode of series seven a single, stand-alone story. Ever since the show came back it’s been clear that a single 45-minute episode can be a hugely powerful format for Doctor Who, but the best have often been the smaller-scale stories (Blink, Midnight and Turn Left spring to mind – the latter grand in scope in some ways, but clearly focused on a single character more than what’s going on around her). The idea of each episode being a mini-movie in its own right led to lots of attempt at creating scale, usually successful… but at the cost of some very thin plot – when all’s said and done, 45 minutes is only 45 minutes, and there’s a reason most films are 90 or more: creating a whole world and satisfying story usually takes quite a bit of screen time.

I found the start of the second half of the series massively disappointing: The Bells of St John was an enjoyable if slight runaround, but The Rings of Akhaten had almost no story at all, and Cold War’s story beats amount to “I will destroy the world” / “Please don’t” / “OK”. The next two episodes remain unwatched on my Freeview box hard drive – like I said at the start, when you’re a fan of something (TV show, football team, whatever) and it lets you down, the disappointment runs a bit deeper than just not enjoying the latest episode, match or what-have-you. That said, The Crimson Horror did an effective job of pastiching Hammer (notably, lower-budget and smaller-scale films than the rest of the series might have aspired to ape) and The Name of the Doctor was clearly the first part of a de facto trilogy with the two subsequent specials, so the series managed to claw back some ground by its end.

I’ve also struggled to warm to Clara. For plot purposes she was clearly meant to be a bit of an enigma prior to the season finale, but it did have the effect of making her seem a bit of a generic Moffat Who girl (though I don’t subscribe at all to the “Moffat can’t write women” nonsense – however bland Clara might be, it couldn’t be argued for instance that in Sherlock Mrs Hudson, Irene Adler, Donovan and Molly are the slightest bit interchangeable). In fairness, writing companions is extraordinarily hard: they have to have a certain set of characteristics (plucky, willing to run off into time and space etc.) and ever since 2005 it’s been hard to write them truly distinctively – probably only Donna Noble stands out as a bit different, chiefly because of her age and its implications, but certainly Rose and Martha were virtually interchangeable. It’s also not clear that having a companion who doesn’t actually travel with the Doctor really works. I liked the approach with Rory and Amy, allowing them periods travelling with him and periods not as their lives moved on, and the Doctor’s close bond with Amy allowed that to make a certain sense. But in what sense Clara is a current companion, other than that the Doctor keeps turning up to see her, is a bit of a mystery. Not a reflection on Jenna Coleman however, who has been consistently great in delivering the material she’s been given.

With a new Doctor and a full series on the way in 2014, there’s a bit of a sense of the programme regrouping after losing its way a bit. Possibly a completely unfair sense – and don’t get me wrong, I’m firmly of the view that Steven Moffat is one of the towering screenwriters in British TV history, to whom the show owes an enormous debt of gratitude – but that’s how it seems.

 An Adventure In Space And Time
adventureI was looking forward massively to An Adventure In Space And Time, which told the story of Doctor Who’s creation in 1963 and the tenure on the show of its first lead actor William Hartnell. And it didn’t disappoint – it was a lovely production, the one snag being that, as a Doctor Who anorak to begin with, I knew exactly what was going to happen. Nicely done though, including lovely location filming at TV Centre and recreation of the show’s original TARDIS set. The Matt Smith cameo at the end pulled me out of the story completely, unfortunately, but was compensated for by Reece Shearsmith’s cameo turn as Patrick Troughton: he didn’t look anything like the second Doctor, but caught Troughton’s air and mannerisms uncannily. It was a lovely addition to the anniversary celebrations though.

50th Anniversary Celebrations
5ishIt can’t be said that the BBC didn’t do the 50th anniversary justice, with various documentary programmes if different kinds – I doubt I’ll ever bring myself to watch the BBC3 efforts, and I’ve yet to get round to The Science of Doctor Who, but it was great to see them all get made. Again one I’ve yet to watch, but I gather the Doctor Who at the Proms celebration included an appearance from Dudley Simpson, the most prolific composer on the original show, and performances of some of his music, which was especially pleasing. My favourite of the many satellite programmes though was The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot, written and directed by Peter Davison and containing lots of wonderful fannish nods, not least David Troughton as a Dalek operator, alongside the real life voice of the Daleks Nick Briggs, and the revelation of John Barrowman’s greatest secret. The genuine bitterness subsequently expressed by Colin Baker regarding the non-appearance of most classic series Doctors (though I’m pretty sure I saw them all on-screen, quite cleverly incorporated via archive footage within its non-HD limitations if you ask me), but cameo by Tom Baker, in the anniversary special soured it a bit, by scraping the veneer of irony off it slightly. But never mind – all told, it was an imaginative, funny and affectionate piece.

Big Finish 50th anniversary stories
When the TV series hit its wobbly spell earlier in the year, I began particularly looking forward to Big Finish’s planned celebrations. Not only did they plan a full-on reunion story for all eight Doctors, but a companion set of three stories all set in 1963 featuring the fifth, sixth and seventh Doctors. In the event, the respective TV and audio adventures showed why the makers of the TV series get to play with pictures as well as sound: the first of the 1963 stories, Fanfare for the Common Men, was a fun runaround involving Peter Davison’s Doctor and a Liverpool band who aren’t quite the Beatles; Colin Baker’s outing, The Space Race, was an oddly-paced mess of Russian space exploration and talking animals, almost as if Andrew Cartmel had written it in the early 90s; and I haven’t picked up the seventh Doctor story yet – though as it reunites the main series with the excellent spin-off Counter Measures, I’m more optimistic. The anniversary story itself, however, The Light At The End, was the worst thing I’ve ever heard from Big Finish – so awful I gave up on it half-way through. The plot was a rambling, unimaginative mess, with a cartoonish Master setting some implausible trap or other for the Doctor – if nothing else, it showed just how hard it would be to do a full reunion of tons of Doctors on-screen, as plotting it must, in fairness, be almost impossible (the most the show has ever attempted in practice was four, with The Five Doctors in 1983 – Tom Baker got stuck in a time eddy or something, so things to do had to be found for only four of them). Worse still, the impersonations of the three deceased Doctors sounded nothing at all like them, despite the no doubt good intentions of all concerned – it was embarrassing. Who knows, maybe it gets really good in its second half, but I just couldn’t bear to hear any more of so much writing and acting talent being put to such poor use. The story was totally lacking the wit and imagination that Big Finish brings at its best – I wish it had been written by Alan Barnes…

DVD releases
Spearhead from Space Blu-ray CoverThe original series of Doctor Who has been coming out on DVD for over a decade now, since well before the show’s return was announced. This year was to be the year in which the final releases came out. Because of the difficult nature of the archive holdings for Doctor Who – many black and white episodes missing, some colour episodes surviving only as black and white copies – the last few releases were the ‘difficult’ ones. Several black and white sixties serials that had an episode or two missing have had the gaps plugged with animations, while a few Jon Pertwee stories have been restored to full(ish) colour.

So the fiftieth anniversary saw the release of some long-awaited stories on DVD, though in truth they were long awaited because of their archival status more than their quality as drama, which was mixed. In the event, the last knockings of the DVD releases have spilled over into 2014, so not all are out yet, but the dedicated team who have worked for the last decade and more to restore the show for DVD and leave a legacy of high quality masters in the archive has, officially, finished its work.

My favourite release of the year, however, was the single high definition release of a classic Doctor Who story: all bar one of the show’s original serials was made partly or wholly using 405 or 625-line video, and so cannot be given a full HD release. Jon Pertwee’s debut, Spearhead from Space, was however shot entirely on film, and so has been polished up into HD and put out on BluRay. It’s a glimpse of what a more expensive, all-film, 60s or 70s Doctor Who might have looked like, and it looks great as well as being one of the high points of the original series (shop window dummies coming to life and bursting through the shop windows – that’s the one). The release was done on a shoestring as these things go, and we should be grateful to everyone who made it happen.

The missing episodes
DIGITAL CAMERAIt’s a complete coincidence that all this has happened in the anniversary year, but it’s still been – and promises to continue to be – massively exciting. Rumours of a major haul of missing British TV shows recovered from African stations grew strong early this year, and shot round the internet, mutating as they did so. I swung from utter scepticism to cautiously feeling there may be something to it, to disbelieving again. Finally in early autumn, things solidified and a consistent rumour of three Doctor Who returns emerged: Marco Polo, The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear. And in October, the release on DVD was confirmed of… the second and third of those. The quizmaster in my pub quiz has a friend who claims to be well-connected, and had told me firmly that the announcement was on its way a couple of days before it emerged… he also reports that Marco Polo is now with iTunes ready to go on sale, its restoration having been delayed by technical troubles. We’ll see if that pans out. Certainly the BFI’s Dick Fiddy, speaking in the documentary screened at this year’s Missing Believed Wiped, seemed to confirm that there is indeed a big haul of stuff from Africa – although he rowed back from this firm position subsequently (but I was there and heard what he originally said, whether a mis-speak or not). It looks likely that there is therefore much material about to be returned to the archive, at least some of it likely to be Doctor Who. Will we really get the number of missing episodes down drastically? It’s a shame in some ways that the constant speculation is overshadowing the remarkable achievement of getting the missing total down below 100, which I certainly would not have expected twelve months ago. On its own, that’s a great bonus for the anniversary year.

JN-T: The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner
jntMost aspects of Doctor Who have had at least one book written about them, and this extends to biographies of some of the key actors and personnel. This is probably the best of them all, and is a great piece of biography in its own right that should be of interest well beyond Doctor Who fandom.

John Nathan-Turner was the final producer of the original run of Doctor Who, overseeing it from Tom Baker’s final season all the way through to its cancellation at the end of the 80s. He was a complex man, and his story both fascinating and ultimately very sad. A rising star in BBC production, he saw himself as a potential future controller of BBC1, and many around him during his early career wouldn’t have seen that as crazy. His career stalled on Doctor Who, however: his first role as producer, in his early thirties, should have been a stepping stone on to other things; in the event, his near-constant efforts to move to or start other shows went nowhere, changing operational models at the BBC closed off future avenues as production was made a freelance business, and the increasingly troubled and ultimately failed production of Doctor Who dragged him down with it.

Richard Marson writes from the perspective of both a Doctor Who fan and a TV producer himself, having had a long stint at the helm of Blue Peter, also a long-running and sometimes flagship BBC show. He traces with authority both why JN-T was deeply loved by many who knew him, and deeply loathed by almost as many – both, as the book makes clear, with some good reasons. Certainly he rose to the limits of his incompetence: he had no understanding of drama, which hobbled the show throughout the decade as it put the whole onus for the creative direction of the show on the script editor (during the most successful periods in its original run, Doctor Who was guided creatively by a producer and script editor working closely together to develop the creative ideas underpinning the show – but JN-T just couldn’t fulfil this function, and worse still didn’t realise it). His frequent proposals for new shows were without exception gimmicky insubstantial rubbish, showing no grasp at all of how drama actually works. He was a highly able nuts-and-bolts man, however, and saw the programme made in the teeth of repeated production crises and eye-wateringly small budgets – no mean feat at all. Marson suggests, probably correctly, that he might have been a better light entertainment producer, or in a salesman / promoter type role for for the show globally – he was an instinctive showman, that much is clear.

JN-T’s personal life is also rightly prominent in the book, though never salaciously or in any way not justified by events. He was a promiscuous gay man who enjoyed contact with young men – plenty of whom came his way given the nature of the Doctor Who fanbase. Had he still been alive, there can be little doubt that he would have been dragged into the post-Saville swirl of retrospective scandal around the BBC; as it was, one or two tabloids picked up on the contents of this book and ran with it long enough to drag Colin Baker in, totally unfairly, but the story inevitably went nowhere. Throughout nearly all his adult life however, JN-T was in a devoted relationship with long-term partner Gary Downie – an association that Marson suggests might have harmed his career, as Downie was a difficult customer prone to rubbing people up the wrong way in every possible sense.

JN-T died aged 54 in sad circumstances; I won’t go on any further – just buy the book. I came away from it not particularly admiring John Nathan-Turner, but certainly liking him.

In praise, or at least defence, of The White Queen

Rebecca Ferguson as Elizabeth, with Max Irons as EdwardThis post contains spoilers for both the plot of The White Queen and, if you’re unfamiliar with it, late fifteenth century English politics as it really happened.

BBC One’s The White Queen, which concluded on Sunday, has attracted a truly remarkable amount of venom, nearly all of it undeserved. Just yesterday, some outlets rushed to run the story that it had been “cancelled” when it was in fact a serial and, as anyone familiar with the historical events it depicts could have told you, it really had reached the end of the compelling narrative it was relating. The eagerness of some people to stick the boot in was pretty astonishing, however. Now, I’m sure that for a professional medievalist it was probably a rather painful watch and could quite readily be nitpicked into oblivion. But I want to use this post to say why I enjoyed it both as a high quality slice of drama and as a very welcome bit of exposure for a period of history too often neglected in favour of the ever-popular sixteenth century.

While it’s true that The White Queen wasn’t textbook history, the place to go for that is a history texbook (for the textbook version of events depicted, go to this one, or for something equally authoritative but closer to storytelling, try this). The only obligation on the programme-makers is to produce ten hours of high quality drama. For my money they succeeded, and did so by presenting the basic outline of an exciting and fascinating slice of English history essentially accurately: Edward IV did make a marriage with Elizabeth that failed to advance England’s diplomatic interests and cocked a snook at his mentor Warwick; he did get kicked off his throne and have to re-claim it; George Duke of Clarence was an unstable figure who repeatedly rebelled against his brother, and may even have been drowned in malmsey wine; and Henry Tudor did ultimately seize the throne from a hapless Richard III, with his scheming mother pressing him on. So far, so historical.

The late fifteenth century is not a period of history, however, about which we have an abundance of detail regarding the personal relationships between the key figures; indeed, at times even the basic narrative of events is a little cloudy (as is particularly the case around Richard’s usurpation of the throne, of which we have hardly any reliable contemporary accounts). The programme-makers therefore have a lot of space to fill in terms of the detail of what we see on screen (exactly why Edward married Elizabeth, and the arrangements he made on his death-bed, are both good examples: we just don’t know what happened, so the programme has to show a reasonably plausible guess). Moreover, The White Queen was adapted from Philippa Gregory’s novels, and I can’t tell you which of the creative choices were made by her, and which by the producers. Nonetheless, I’d argue that the show on balance made its decisions wisely.

The focus on the women was clearly a conscious choice, and I presume comes from the novels. It doesn’t, as I believe Philippa Gregory has tried to suggest, show that “the women made history” in this period or anything like that; indeed, it makes it obvious that society and politics at the time were truly patriarchal and the role of women was principally to produce male heirs and wait at home for news from battle. Nonetheless, the focus serves the programme well: focus solely on the men would have left the female characters barely seen on-screen, and ten hours of thuggish men slugging it out would not really work as mainstream television drama. The focus also makes the dynastic considerations in English politics clear, which is impressive as they are quite hard to put across without a diagram. Better still, it also means the producers don’t have to show lots of very expensive battle scenes (and when they try, it must be said the limitations of even a lavish TV budget were very obvious, as the viewer is never convinced there are two armies on-screen).

In particular, the choice of Elizabeth Woodville as the central character offers a clear thread through the main events, although the point at which she enters the story does mean we didn’t get to see much of Henry VI’s madness and to understand why his reign was such a disaster. It also means that the series got off to a relatively slow start, with the really juicy plot turns coming from the second episode onwards; word of mouth appears to have been kinder to the show than initial reviews, as viewers who stuck with it found it rewarding. But I must say I can’t identify a better place in the history to start; maybe some kind of non-linear structure, telling the early part of the story in flashback from some later decisive point, would have remedied that problem.

Overall though, one of the nice things about drama generally, and why The White Queen withstood most of the minor liberties taken with the history (and I’ll get to those) is that on-screen characters are defined by their actions, and with the basic outline of events correctly shown the characters – perhaps more the men than the women – carry fair echoes of their historical counterparts. Edward IV was indeed an effective and mostly un-vindictive king (the historical Edward did not have Henry VI executed when he could have done, much to his personal cost); similarly, Richard is pleasingly balanced, accurately shown as loyal to Edward in his lifetime, and making a succession of bad decisions after it (albeit not quite the mistakes the real-life Richard made); and Clarence was indeed self-centred and arguably rather unhinged.

Faye Marsay as Anne Neville

Even from this standpoint however, the last two episodes were problematic because they showed a convoluted (albeit moderately clever) explanation of the deaths of Edward V and his brother in the Tower that departed from the overwhelmingly most likely historical explanation: that they were killed on the orders of their uncle Richard. I wouldn’t exactly say Richard is treated well by the show’s revised narrative: arguably the incestuous affection he develops towards his niece – ostensibly as a political ploy, but genuinely felt by the character, on my reading of the drama (confirmed in the US edit, which contains some gratuitous nudity from most of the female leads, including a love scene between Richard and the younger Elizabeth) – is at best one step up from murdering his nephews. It’s an interesting treatment of the character, but the true situation – a loyal lieutenant, lacking the skills for leadership and making a series of ever-more panicky and ill-judged decisions, culminating in a combined regicide and infanticide, and then his own death – would have served at least as well for the purposes of the drama. It also undermined the fictional Richard’s relationship with his wife at the end of her life, whereas the real-life king was reportedly much more upset by her death than the one we saw here. That said, and as an aside, Anne Neville’s journey from frightened girl to scheming eminence grise and ultimately to broken, guilt-wracked queen is one of the best story threads of the serial, and impressively portrayed by Faye Marsay in what IMDB suggests was only her second screen role. Similarly, Rebecca Ferguson and Amanda Hale were also excellent as the other main queens; the latter seems a little typecast currently in playing semi-demented women, but she does it brilliantly and certainly managed not to lose the viewer’s sympathy for Margaret.

But to wrap up the problems: the second of the biggies was the survival of Elizabeth’s second son by Edward. Not only is this nonsense historically, but it makes little sense in character terms either: it is very hard for the viewer to accept that Elizabeth will just sit back and not tilt for the throne with her surviving son, after all she has already put herself through. Of course, it’s not clear at the end that that’s what happened: the series finishes at the end of the battle of Bosworth, and doesn’t attempt to get into the political consequences of Henry Tudor’s ascent to the throne – if you didn’t know the history, you might have expected a second series to pick up with Elizabeth trying to oust Tudor. I had rather expected the show to go up to Elizabeth’s death, by which time she had become the grandmother of the future Henry VIII. But looking at it in terms of cold story, really once matters are settled at Bosworth, the conflict that drives the drama is over, so I can understand the writers not risking a limp final episode or half-episode to wrap everything up in a bow.

Those slightly wayward choices aside, the serial really did put the whole saga on-screen in a way that was faithful to the beats of the history. It would be letting the show off the hook, however, not to acknowledge at least some of the holes that could be picked. I didn’t mind that it looked rather “chocolate box” – it’s a prime time drama on BBC One, and I thought the way the last couple of episodes in particular were shot looked sumptuous. But beyond the quality of the photography, the architecture was neither convincingly English (the filming taking place on the continent) nor, often, convincingly medieval; the period church interiors in particular were unconvincing, seldom resembling medieval Catholic churches at all – then again, there aren’t exactly many of those left untouched by the Reformation.

It can also be observed that some of the historical players, particularly nobles, were omitted entirely, conflated with other nobles or alive at a time when their historical counterparts were dead. But, frankly, good – fitting that amount of history into ten hours is a demanding task, and sacrificing a bit of detail for the sake of getting the outline of the key events on screen is not merely justified but essential. I had more of a problem with Edward IV personally murdering Henry VI, both for the idea that he would do it himself and for the depiction of the old king being smothered, when Henry was more probably killed by a blow to the head.

Amanda Hale as yet another unhinged woman, but she plays them so well - this time Margaret Beaufort

It’s also the case that the actors aren’t the right ages, for instance at the start of the series Margaret Beaufort, with her son Henry Tudor only 5 or so, should still have been in her late teens, having only been about 13 when she gave birth. In my view however the producers were right not to go overboard on distracting ageing make-up, or re-casting each part in “old” and “young” versions (with some sensible exceptions, for characters who start as children). Less well-judged were a couple of very modern-looking “trials” – although it’s true that Edward prosecuted Clarence personally, the production relied on the televisual grammar of modern courtroom dramas rather too heavily. The depiction of the Woodvilles’ witchcraft actually affecting the outcome of events is bobbins too (I’ve no problem with the idea that characters might have believed witchcraft had an effect, of course), although the subtle pay-off near the end with the reference to the ill-fated Prince Arthur almost redeemed it… but didn’t quite. And no doubt many costume and other details are out if you’re minded to look for them.

Overall though I do think that to grouse about the detail without recognising the serial’s strengths is to miss the wood for the trees: I was delighted to see this period getting a high profile treatment on television, and it has certainly re-kindled my enthusiasm for it. Some modest mis-steps aside, The White Queen made a decent fist of that difficult task: turning compelling history into compelling drama.

Ten underrated British sitcoms: #10 Shelley

shelley-pic2What is it?
The titular James Shelley (Hywel Bennett) is, when we meet him, a highly qualified graduate living an easy life scrounging on the dole, while his girlfriend Fran (Belinda Sinclair) writes her novel. They find a new home in a bedsit run by nosy and abrasive landlady Mrs Hawkins (Josephine Tewson), with whom nonetheless they come to develop a friendship. Shelley’s life gets complicated, however, when Fran falls pregnant and he briefly succeeds, to his chagrin, in finding gainful employment.

Shelley ran initially for six series on ITV from 1979 to 1984, the first three written by creator Peter Tilbury, and returned for a further four series from 1988 to 1992.

Why was it good?
The series rests on the back-and-forth sarcasm of the title character, who is able to talk himself into or out of more or less anything and can outwit most of the characters in the show. In particular, Hywel Bennett’s performance is superb, and gives Shelley a layer of charm and likeability that the character might not possess on the page. Josephine Tewson’s performance as Mrs H provides him with a perfect foil.

Also worth a mention is the memorable theme tune by Ron Grainer, which is surprisingly fast for such a melancholy tune and sets a perfect tone for the show.

Why is it underrated?
Shelley was a big hit for ITV at the time, but is now probably fondly remembered by those who remember it fondly, if you see what I mean, and nobody else.

Perhaps this is because it was resolutely contemporary, so the changing fashions and topical jokes preclude repeat showings (unlike period settings or prison uniforms, say, which to some extent leave Dad’s Army and Porridge, for instance, less obviously datestamped).

That said, time has been a bit unkind to Shelley. Its pacing is very slow – and some episodes are, it must be said, wafer-thin in terms of actual story even compared to the likes of Early Doors – and it’s often well off the three-laughs-a-minute standard that sitcoms have to keep to as a minimum now; overall, it arguably struggles to hold its head up among more recent shows.

Another oddity is that although the first four series (which I’ll admit is all I’ve seen, as I’m working my way through the DVDs) take place over an on-screen period of less than a year, covering Fran’s pregnancy and the birth of the baby, they were produced from 1979 to 1982, during which the nature of unemployment changed: attitudes towards scroungers like Shelley got tougher, and unemployment soared. When the show started, part of the joke was that Shelley could easily find a job if he wanted to; a few series in, the joke rests on the immense difficulty of doing so, and the satire on unemployment becomes altogether more vicious as Shelley and Fran slide into poverty and negative equity.

Arguably therefore Shelley doesn’t deliver on its premise of charming and determined layabout beyond its first few episodes, as the title character first finds a job and then becomes in earnest need of one. I must say I also struggle to warm to Belinda Sinclair as Fran, who delivers a perfectly good straight performance but somehow lacks the comic chops of Bennett and Tewson.

That said, there’s still something enormously watchable about the show, particularly the first few bedsit-set series: it establishes a fairly cosy and likeable world that rewards a weekly visit.

Can I watch it?
The first six series are available on DVD from Network , with the remaining four supposedly due for release but showing no signs of turning up just yet.

Ten underrated British sitcoms: #9 Early Doors

EARLY DOORS_EP4What is it?
Early Doors was the next “people sitting around talking and nothing happening” sitcom co-created by Craig Cash after The Royle Family, this time with Phil Mealey. It is set entirely in the Stockport pub The Grapes, and follows landlord Ken, his family (work-shy mother and student daughter) and his wider family, the pub’s regulars.

It ran for two series of six episodes each on BBC Two in 2003 and 2004.

Why was it good?
Early Doors is another of the series that was well-regarded at the time, but has perhaps become a bit obscure since, being overshadowed by the return of The Royle Family for interminable Christmas specials. That said, it occasionally pops up as a repeat on BBC Four.

While the talky bits are full of quick, but very dry, Northern humour, the series is given an extra dimension by a number of through-line plots over the course of each series. These were added, according to the DVD commentaries, on the advice of Nicola Shindler and rather against the instincts of Cash and Mealey who wanted to stick to the droll talky stuff. The understated plotlines about Ken’s daughter tracking down her real father (series 1) and the threatened closure of the pub and possible romance for Ken (series 2) give the show a weight that makes it all the more watchable and effective. The cast are of course also excellent throughout (so much so that a couple of them, James McAvoy and Maxine Peake, were poached by Shameless between series). It’s a show that does a particularly good job of creating its own world for the viewer to revisit: warm and funny, but not without its rough edges.

Why is it underrated?
Some aspects of the show are down to taste: it’s very Northern, and the business of people sitting around talking and nothing very much happening (or at least not very obviously or quickly) probably limited its appeal. Those who liked it, however, undoubtedly really liked it, and it’s included here in the hope of nudging it to keep alive in the memory for a bit longer rather than because it got any particularly raw deal at the time.

Can I watch it?
Both series are available on DVD.

Ten underrated British sitcoms: #8 PhoneShop

phoneshop1What is it?
The only show on this list that’s currently in production, PhoneShop is an ensemble sitcom following the workers at a branch of PhoneShop on a high street in south London. It initially focuses on the arrival of a new staff member, the wet-behind-the-ears Christopher, a graduate who clearly didn’t expect to be working retail.

PhoneShop has had two series so far on E4, with subsequent HD broadcasts on C4, having started life in 2009 as one of Channel 4’s Comedy Showcase pilots. A third series is currently being broadcast.

Why is it good?
PhoneShop can’t be accused of being the most original sitcom in the world: a workplace mockumentary* with a strong vein of embarrassment humour, it clearly traces at least some of its lineage back to The Office – not coincidentally, as Ricky Gervais script-edited the pilot, broadcast in 2009. There is more to PhoneShop than that, however: the characters and humour quickly became more stylised than in The Office. Large though they may be, the characters are developed enough to give rise to a lot of the humour, with much of the rest coming from a (perhaps slightly unkind) satire on the modern high street and consumer. Ultimately the shop’s staff, despite the brutal environment they inhabit, form a bit of a family among themselves, and the second series shows somewhat more warmth between them.

PhoneShop was created, produced and written by Phil Bowker, whose other credits include Pulling, with additional material coming from the excellent cast and associate producer Jon Macqueen. The faux patois banter between salesmen Ashley and Jerwayne (Andrew Brooke and Javone Prince) is always a highlight of an episode. As with several other shows on this list, the music is particularly effective, with unpleasant, jarring bursts of dance and electro turning the high street into a hostile and frightening place to visit.

Why is it underrated?
I can’t help but think PhoneShop isn’t so much underrated as a bit under-promoted, at least until recently. The production of a second series had passed me by until I came to research this blog, and Channel 4 is arguably not in one of its stronger patches for comedy, with panel shows dominating over sitcoms, and even those mainly older formats running slightly on fumes. Nonetheless PhoneShop is a success that finally seems to be getting recognised, with the current new series having been rather more heavily promoted.

Can I watch it?
PhoneShop is available on 4OD , and its first series is on DVD. And of course, you can watch the current series on E4 on Thursdays at 10pm.

* As Jon Macqueen has pointed out on Twitter, ‘mockumentary’ isn’t the right word for PhoneShop at all – almost certainly that’d be me confusing myself with the reference to The Office…

Ten underrated British sitcoms: #7 Free Agents

free-agents-s1e1-20090203182247-2_625x352What is it?
The series opens immediately after the two lead characters, Alex (Stephen Mangan) and Helen (Sharon Horgan) have had sex in an ill-advised one night stand, whereupon Alex bursts into tears. He is going through a divorce from his wife and the mother of his children, while Helen is still recovering from the sudden death of her fiance shortly before their planned wedding. The two work in the same talent agency, run by the gregarious and utterly perverted Stephen Cauldwell (Anthony Stewart-Head), and the series charts their efforts to recover from their personal disappointments, alternately leaning on each other and falling out.

Free Agents ran for one series of six episodes on Channel 4 in 2008.

Why was it good?
Free Agents was an example of arguably a sub-genre within British TV comedy: the sad sitcom (see also Respectable and, at a push, Pulling and The Job Lot). Neither of the lead characters finds much solace over the course of the series. There’s a strong vein of embarrassment humour in it too, particularly for Horgan’s character, which is somewhat balanced by the pathos of Mangan’s.

The comedy is heightened by the strong dramatic premise; there is also some sharp verbal humour arising acutely from the characters’ situations, as Alex and Helen trade acute observational one-liners; it also attracted complaints for bad language from the Mary Whitehouse brigade, so it was doing something right.

It hardly needs saying, but the cast was brilliant: Mangan, Horgan and a superbly filthy and devilish performance from Head anchored the show, but credit should also go to Matthew Holness and Sara Pascoe in wonderful supporting roles.

Why is it underrated?
This is another of the shows that wasn’t poorly regarded at the time, but now seems to have become a bit forgotten due to the passing of time. I’m unsure why it didn’t get a second series: the ratings and critical reception were neither great nor awful from what I can tell; perhaps it was just never the plan by writer Chris Niel (himself also a talent agent). Whatever the reasons, the lack of a second series definitely represents an opportunity missed, it seems to me.

Can I watch it?
The show is currently available quite cheaply on DVD but not on 4OD at present, though it has been in the past so who know if it will turn up again?

Ten underrated British sitcoms: #6 Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps

two pintsWhat is it?
Two Pints starts off as the story of five friends in early adulthood, with little education and even less money, striking out on their own in Runcorn (it draws closely on the experiences of creator Susan Nickson, who is the same age as her characters and was therefore commendably young to have a sitcom commissioned).

The friends comprise two couples: the homely pairing of well-intentioned layabout Jonny (Ralf Little) and the only slightly more industrious Janet (Sheridan Smith), and the altogether more feisty and barbed pairing of mechanic Gaz (Will Mellor) and the perpetually angry Donna (Natalie Casey); the shallow, self-obsessed and squeaky Louise (Kathryn Drysdale) makes up the five.

Two Pints ran for nine series plus sundry specials from 2001 to 2011, totalling 80 episodes by my count (though IMDB says 83 for some reason), across BBC Two, BBC Choice and BBC Three.

Why was it good?
Like many of the sitcoms featured in these posts, Two Pints limits its appeals somewhat by one of its key characteristics: it’s only for you if you like really crude humour. But it was a warm show: the humour was unsubtle, but this was not a show about people being horrible to each other; ultimately, it was a show about a group of friends that had a warm tone, verging on the cosy.

The cast was superb – all now well-regarded actors, not least Sheridan Smith who has gone from starring in a widely-maligned show to being flavour of the month – and the characters also well-drawn and capable of driving the plot. These two things allowed for some really compelling episodes, such as the two-hander at the start of series 8 between Will Mellor and Sheridan Smith, apparently shot all in a single as-live take.

The show also gave rise to several specials: a musical at the start of series 4 remains probably the best, and was followed by a highly effective horror ep at the end of series 6, the live broadcast of the first episode of series 7 (the last live sitcom to come from Television Centre?), a crossover episode for Children in Need with the other two BBC Three sitcoms created or worked on by Susan Nickson, Grownups (also starring Sheridan Smith) and Coming of Age, and finally after series 8 a second musical episode and then Sliding Gaz, a bold two-hander between Mellor and Casey, switching between two possible scenarios for Gaz and Donna, the ‘real’ one being revealed at the start of the ninth and final series.

Why is it underrated?
Few things in relation to television annoy me more than the way in which Two Pints has become the ready punchline to many a lazy joke, as a byword for poor quality. It’s very hard to see how this can be justified: bad shows do not run for nine series or become the de facto flagship programme on their channel.

The reasons for the general low esteem in which the show is held are mostly (but not entirely) unrelated to its content and more to do with context. At the time of its launch the knives were well and truly out for anything that looked like traditional TV, particularly multi-camera sitcoms. Contemporary working class characters are always somewhat unloved within the TV industry, and by the second half of the 2000s the buzzword of the day was “chav” – a term that could be applied to both Jonny and Janet in Two Pints. The programme was also arguably rather over-exposed by the constant looping of repeats (mostly of series 2 to 6) on BBC Three at around the same time.

That said, as noted above the humour is undoubtedly a bit divisive and it’s certainly possible to argue that the show ran for too long. Story-wise, the relationships between the characters were played out by the end of series five (by which point the writers had taken them through the inevitable splitting up, cheating and getting back together again), although Louise was egregiously one-dimensional and really had little to offer story-wise after about the third series. From series six onwards the stories became more forced and contrived, with the show overtly jumping the shark to explain the writing-out of Jonny after Ralf Little left between series. By the final series (which I’ll admit I’ve not seen – I’m part-way through a re-watch of the show and have series nine sitting on my DVD shelf waiting for me to get to it), only Gaz and Donna remained of the original cast. Sadly Two Pints apparently ended on a cliffhanger in the hope of a re-commission; Zai Bennett’s purge of BBC Three comedy shows put paid to that. A more dignified wrapping-up a little earlier might have been preferable, but it certainly deserves to be remembered as a well-written, well-acted and successful show, not as the byword for bad taste it has become.

Can I watch it?
All series are available on DVD, though sadly the days of constant looped repeats of the show on BBC Three are long over.

Ten underrated British sitcoms: #5 Joking Apart

joking apart 2What 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.

joking apart 1Why 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).