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 impressively 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 deliberately 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 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).

Ten underrated British sitcoms: #4 Is It Legal?

vlcsnap-2013-05-27-21h17m05s250What is it?
Is It Legal? is an ensemble sitcom, written by Simon Nye and set in the offices of Hounslow solicitors Lotus, Spackman and Phelps. We join the story as newly-qualified solicitor Colin Lotus (Richard Lumsden) starts work at the practice, courtesy of his retired father’s position as a founding partner rather than any ability as a lawyer on Colin’s part. Here he meets the other partners – Dick Spackman (Jeremy Clyde), who does nothing but play golf, and the fiercesome mainstay of the business Stella (Imelda Staunton), increasingly dissatisfied with her life and career as she heads into middle age – plus the lovestruck clerk Bob, lazy and shallow secretary Alison (Kate Isitt) and well-intentioned office boy Darren (Matthew Ashforde).

Is It Legal? ran for two series on ITV in 1995 and 1996, and a third on Channel 4 in 1998.

Why was it good?
Unlike the first few underrated sitcoms highlighted in this series, Is It Legal? didn’t meet with much in the way of undue opprobrium or suffer from an unjustly short run. It is, however, an example of an arguably work-a-day sitcom that ran its course and is now largely forgotten.

It’s the show’s lack of spectacular-ness that I rather like about it: it was a decently-done sitcom, nothing more and nothing less – but that is no small thing to be. Its scripts and performances and never less than sound and do what a sitcom should by keeping the laughs coming at a regular pace; the characters don’t have masses of depth, perhaps bar Stella, but are sharply enough drawn for much of the humour to arise from their interactions.

Viewed at a bit of a distance, it now also has a certain fascination in terms of being relatively modern, but featuring an office in which the workers do not have computers on their desks (indeed, it has one episode involving the introduction of computers, which is fascinatingly dated, but whose humour was topical at the time) – if it had started just a few years later this would have been unimaginable.

Unfortunately the inventive title sequence for series 1 and 2, with wind-up “see no evil” monkeys (pictured) was replaced for the Channel 4 run by a rather cartoony effort that seemed to be someone’s idea of what a sitcom title sequence should be, rather than an actual attempt to produce a good title sequence. It seems a small thing to mention, but it always jars with me.

Why is it underrated?
Successful ITV sitcoms tend to get forgotten quickly, doubly so anything made after the supposed “golden age”. In the mid-90s, multi-camera sitcoms appeared to be the last word in unfashionability. Arguably the show appears a bit bog standard: a studio-based, office sitcom – though I’d argue that’s exactly why it deserves credit, as it presents a generic format extremely well.

That said, perhaps the show doesn’t offer much of an edge beyond that; Stella and Bob start a tentative affair in the last series, and while this is charmingly played, the series was clearly never going to hang on the developing personal relationships between characters. That said, it’s still a little surprising that the show appears not to be better remembered: Imelda Staunton is better known than ever now, Kate Isitt went on to even greater success in Coupling, Simon Nye continues to have a strong pedigree, and the show ran for three series after all. Is It Legal remains a great showcase for the talents of all concerned.

Can I watch it?
All three series are available on DVD courtesy of Network (but don’t expect any extras).

Ten underrated British sitcoms: #3 Clone

cloneWhat is it?
In his ‘Mark Lawson talks to…’ interview Mark Gatiss identified Clone, along with Sex Lives of the Potato Men, as both an example of a project he had been involved with that had flopped and an unhappy working experience. It ran for one series of six episodes on BBC Three at the end of 2008.

The set-up is as follows. Top secret military research scientist Victor Blenkinsop (Jonathan Pryce) has artificially bred a soldier, designed to be the perfect tool for military operations; unfortunately, when the clone (Stuart McLoughlin) emerges from the tank he proves to be clumsy, childlike and totally lacking any sort of aggressive instinct. Victor goes on the run from Colonel Black (Gatiss) of MI7, knowing that he and Clone risk being executed to save the military’s blushes. They end up in an obscure English village, lodging at a pub run by inexplicable twenty-something maths prodigy Rose (Fiona Glascott). The series takes place in the village, as Victor, Clone and Rose attempt to rub along together, while Victor tries to keep his identity secret from Rose, keep his location secret from Colonel Black, and find a way of unlocking the clone’s potential to save both their lives.

Why was it good?
Despite its sci-fi trappings, Clone was actually an odd couple, fish-out-of-water comedy, with Victor railing at being stuck in an unsophisticated backwater and lumbered with raising Clone, effectively a child in an adult’s body. Much of the humour is deeply silly, and arises both from Clone’s childlike misunderstandings of the world around him, and Victor’s too-clever-by-half gambits to get out of his predicament.

Such very silly humour will always rely on the performers to sell it, and the cast of Clone do so with style. Pryce is convincingly scathing and nasty, but also fallible, as Victor; Stuart McLoughlin gives a charming and loose-limbed performance as Clone; Fiona Glascott is immensely likeable as the sassy but somehow still vulnerable Rose; and Gatiss, despite his later disdain for the project, offers a gloriously swivel-eyed, scenery-chewing turn as Black.

Why is it underrated?
There can be little doubt that Clone was badly received; indeed, it attracted some of the most vicious reviews of any programme I’ve ever seen, and quickly came to be regarded as a byword for failure.

It is perhaps an example of a show that doesn’t fulfil its contract with the audience. Superficially Clone looked like it would be some sort of sci-fi comedy, perhaps more like Red Dwarf than anything else; the screwball whimsy it delivered, albeit deft and endearing, was really very different, so it’s perhaps unsurprising it failed to find an audience.

I do wonder if it might have done better if it had started with its second episode, and not opened so heavily with its unrepresentative sci-fi setup. Ultimately, the sci-fi angle was very silly and cartoonish; the three-way relationship between Clone, Victor and Rose was the centrepiece of the show, and the scenes cutting away to Mark Gatiss’s character overseeing the search for Victor with OTT menace did sometimes seem rather like side-steps into another (no less silly, but somewhat less charming) show.

All of this gave anyone who wanted it the sticks with which to beat a BBC Three, multi-camera, laugh-tracked sitcom. But ultimately it still makes me laugh, and achieves that highly desirable goal for any television show of creating a distinctive world that I want to re-visit. Its final episode left things in a place for a second series that I’d certainly have been interested to watch.

Can I watch it?
Clone appears not to have been shown on the BBC since its original run, and is presumably unlikely to turn up on Dave or similar. It also seems to be unavailable on DVD at present, if it ever was – the limited retail listings visible online suggest its release might have been cancelled entirely after it flopped so badly on TV. Extensive clips have been put online unofficially – no doubt you know where to look.

Ten underrated British sitcoms: #2 White Van Man

wvmpromo-4What is it?
Will Mellor plays Ollie, who has set aside his own dreams of opening a restaurant to take over his father Tony’s (Clive Mantle) handyman business after the latter suffers a heart attack. He pounds the streets of Maplebury (which roughly = Stockport in Greater Manchester) with his work-shy assistant Darren (Joel Fry), occasionally aided by his girlfriend Emma (Georgia Moffett) and Ollie’s sister Liz (Naomi Bentley), who works in the local hardware supplier and nurses a crush on Ollie to which he is entirely oblivious.

White Van Man ran for two series of six episodes each on BBC Three in 2011 and 2012.

Why was it good?
White Van Man’s strength was principally that it was very well written by Adrian Poynton, who created a fully rounded sitcom. Although the humour often arose from Ollie getting into awkward situations with clients, this was always built around the characters and strong themes, for instance Ollie trying to do the right thing or not be a pushover; conflict arises from character, usually Ollie versus his father, or Darren, or Emma (forever stealing his good ideas and setting up her own unsuccessful businesses, with no small amount of incompetence and, at worst, deceitfulness and spite). The show offered tight storylining too, with climactic scenes and punchlines diligently set up across each episode.

The scripts were also sold brilliantly by a strong cast firing on all cylinders. Without going through every member – though I could – Ollie is endearingly played by Will Mellor, rather underrated as a character actor in my view, who turns in a convincingly different performance from his other BBC Three comedy role, as Gaz in Two Pints. The episodes often centre on the double act he forms with Joel Fry, who is also a joy to watch.

Like Respectable, White Van Man is enhanced by its soundtrack, with a prominent mix of ska and dub reggae forming an unexpected but hugely enjoyable wrapper for the action.

Why is it underrated?
White Van Man came with the usual dose of snobbery about BBC Three sitcoms from some quarters (even though the truth is that the channel has been a mainstay of British comedy over the last decade, and our sitcom landscape would have looked pretty desolate without it). But the main sense in which White Van Man is underrated is that it was cancelled after two series as part of Zai Bennett’s clear-out of all the comedy shows he inherited when he took up his post as controller of BBC Three – only Russell Howard’s Good News survived the cull, which also claimed non-comedy shows including Doctor Who Confidential. It was a real shame: White Van Man had a lot of heart, and was easily worth a third series.

Can I watch it?
Both series are available on DVD for not much money (series 1, series 2), though the show is in that extremely annoying category of a programme made in HD but not available on Bluray. Repeats of any sort look unlikely, and especially so in HD as the BBC HD channel has now become BBC Two HD. But who knows, it could turn up on a satellite or digital channel at some point.