Archives for posts with tag: Graham Linehan

Firstly, an apology for missing a week. Real life got in the way. And by real life, I mean a Christmas Afternoon High Tea with prosecco. But I am back now, so let’s crack on.

Last year the BBC launched a number of sitcom pilots to see if any could generate enough interest to succeed as a series. Most failed to even raise an eyebrow, but one – Motherland – generated both critical and public acclaim. This perhaps isn’t surprising when you consider the calibre of people working on it. Two of the four writers are Graham Linehan and Sharon Horgan, both of whom have a pedigree in making excellent comedies.

Motherland is, as the title obviously suggests, about parenting. Anna Maxwell Martin plays Julia, who is trying to ‘have it all’ and ending up often with having nothing but stress thanks to a feckless husband. Diane Morgan is the more slatternly (and presumably unemployed) single mum Liz, Lucy Punch as queen of the ‘Tiger Mums’ Amanda and Paul Ready is stay-at-home dad Kevin.

It has to be said the strongest character is Liz, full of brutal honesty and realism with also a touch vulnerability. A particular highlight came in episode one when Julia’s entertainer for her child’s birthday party was exposed as a racist and Liz had also used and refused to pay him. When Julia queried if it was the racism, Liz responded with: “No, because he was shit! If I didn’t pay people because they were racist I would have never got my satellite dish fitted. Or my wedding catered for”.

This more down-to-earth humour balances the more manic energies brought by Julia and Kevin. The latter in particular is annoying, a mixture of weird obsessiveness with a desperation to please normally only seen in puppies. It is the fact this portrayal veers in the cartoony that is the show’s biggest weakness. Everybody else you feel is somewhat believable, regardless of their faults.

Putting Kevin aside, this is an excellent comedy. It actually makes you laugh as the strands of the episode build to a climax. There isn’t any of the absurdism of Linehan’s other sitcoms, but then, that wouldn’t work here. This is about wry observations of modern parenting and the social rules that come with it.

I hope this show achieves continued success. Female-dominated comedies often get plenty of well-meaning comments but nothing to show for it. This deserves more. At the very least, a BAFTA for Morgan, who seems to be constantly just bubbling under the surface as a breakout talent. Maybe this could be her chance to join those at comedy’s top table. She has earnt it.

 

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Graham Linehan is a personal hero of mine. He has created some of my favourite shows, including Father Ted, Black Books and The IT Crowd. He is also collaborating on Motherland, a pilot I enjoyed last year, which is missing some of the trademark absurdities of his other shows but is compensated by allowing the characters to zing off each other.

His current big project though is Count Arthur Strong. As with his other works, this is a collaboration, this time with Steve Delaney. It focuses on an out-of-work former variety star (played by Delaney), his eccentric friends and the put-upon ‘straight’ man Michael. The standard episode revolves around Arthur having some bizarre scheme in his head, which impacts on Michael’s hopes of a quiet life.

The most recent episode progressed as follows: Michael got called up for jury service, while Arthur got addicted to doing good deeds, everyone being followed by a vision of Brian Cox staring dreamily off into the landscape. In doing so he messes up both Michael’s jury service and gets entangled with organised crime, before everything reaches a climax with him overdosing on ‘gratitude’.

This is essentially a comedy of errors writ large. And it is joyful. This is largely because it is written in an innocent way – this is no black-hearted sitcom, with cruel people and comedy monstrousness. Interestingly, the first two series were put on in obscure timeslots, particularly series 2, which is strange when you consider how ‘family’ orientated the show is. No bad language, no sex, and minimal bad behaviour – this is something a ten-year-old could joyfully watch with their parents.

There are some Linehan trademarks. The absurdity has already been hinted at, but also the ensemble nature of the cast is a classic feature of his work. A small retinue of regular and semi-regular characters that have their oddities, but none of them nasty. It isn’t afraid to be tender either. In episode 1, a rare moment of clarity from Arthur helps save Michael from a mistake.

Steve Delaney is great as the eccentric and easily confused Arthur. The malapropisms are a nice touch, showing the character’s delusions in a light way. Rory Kinnear plays the unfortunate Michael well, and the rest of the cast all allow their moments to shine as well. All of this – the kindness in the characters, the warmth in the jokes, the silliness in the plots – makes this the perfect family sitcom. It’s a shame the BBC didn’t realise this two series ago.

As I have argued before in my posts, comedy is a subjective area. I have found things rip-roaringly funny that hasn’t even raised a smile from others. Then there is the whole debate of comedy being dramatically defined merely as the absence of tragedy. That in itself raises questions over the more bleaker comedies, for example Getting On. Personally, I am a fan of black humour, so long as there is no victim or cruelty to it. A joke at the expense of how we treat the disabled – yes. A joke at the expense of the disabled – no.

Which brings me to The Walshes. Is it a comedy that mocks Irish family life? Or is it more of a celebration of individual quirks that humanity has? I find that this largely falls into the later category. For people who find Mrs Brown’s Boys grating and over-the-top, this is a perfect antidote. The set up is similar: fearsome but loving matriarch, anarchic kids, patriarch on the side lines, oddball neighbours. Yet with The Walshes, there is a lighter touch.

The second episode, screened Tuesday night on BBC2, is a great example of this. The normal, everyday act of a daughter’s boyfriend moving in sets a chain of reactions that prove to be hilarious but honest. The mother, panicking over the morality of the situation, pretends to be fine with everything whilst clearly not. The dad worries over feeling intellectually inferior, so tries to change himself. Both plots build nicely to a finale based around a very tense family board game night, featuring perhaps the first joke to reference Encarta 95.

Of course, we shouldn’t be surprised at the quality. It is the latest creative child of Graham Linehan, who has teamed up with Irish comedy ensemble Diet of Worms. Originally screened in Ireland, and then hidden away on BBC4, it is finally making a break for it on BBC2. A second series is dependent on its success, but I hope there is one. And a longer one at that – three episodes just isn’t enough. The pedigree of those working on the show alone should be enough for the commission. After all, someone keeps buying more episodes of Mrs Brown’s Boys. If the bar for success is that low, The Walshes deserves at least double the investment.

If there is ever one phrase that kills a sitcom’s chance of success it is ‘studio audience laughter’. A lot of people see it as being told when to laugh, which they object to. In many cases I understand and agree with their sentiments. A lot of comedies that use the laughter from the audience I just don’t find funny – Mrs Brown’s Boys, Miranda and Citizen Khan all struggle to raise a smile from me. However, I can’t really blame the studio laughter if I’m honest – Friends and Father Ted both used it, and I find them funny from start to finish (by the way, notice how I am not using the phrase canned laughter – that is because the phrase is inaccurate). So it must be the writing and acting that turns a comedy from terrible to side-splitting.

Which brings me to Count Arthur Strong, the latest Graham Linehan project. Linehan is a comedy hero of mine, creating the aforementioned Father Ted, The IT Crowd, and one of my all-time favourites Black Books. All of these, as it happens, used laughter from a studio audience, and were none the worse for it. Likewise with Count Arthur Strong,  the tale of a fallen comedy idol who strikes up an odd friendship with the son of his former comedy partner. It is daft, sweet, and (of course) funny.

It is also old-fashioned. Not old-fashioned in a bad sense, as in where the set up is the nuclear family and everyone has a set role in it. I mean in a good way. For instance Count Arthur (Steve Delaney, also a co-writer) and Michael (Rory Kinnear) may be at the centre of the episodes, but there is a good ensemble around them. Their roles may only be minor, but the interplay between the whole cast is beautifully done, with no character wasted.  Also, it is safe to watch as a family. I know that shouldn’t be a huge priority, but it is good to see that Linehan and Delaney have written something for a broad audience that still has its intelligence intact.

Like so much of Linehan’s work, the joy comes in the more demented moments. The ice cream van Count Arthur uses as cover for his Jack the Ripper tours. His tale of the salmon in the toilet. And my personal favourite, the piece of ham used as a mask for his rendition of The Phantom of the Opera. Yet it is impossible not to see the debt paid to great sitcoms of the past, many of whom used studio laughter and didn’t get savaged for it. Perhaps the truth is that some sitcoms work better with a laughter track, even if the critics don’t like it. Not that they ever like much to begin with.