Will Mellor

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.

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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: #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.