Robert Webb, Stephen Fry, Katherine Parkinson, David Mitchell, Celia Imrie, Johnny Vegas, Una Stubbs, Father Ted’s Mrs Doyle, The Demon Headmaster, the son in ‘Spy’, Ben Whishaw’s lackey in The Hour, someone who looked like a stretched out Albert Finney. With a cast like that, at Christmas, and on the BBC, you can’t go wrong can you? Well, actually you can.
A spoof Charles Dickens drama, originally written as a series on Radio 4, and with so many well-known faces, this should have been the perfect middle-class Christmas family entertainment comedy. But, as with so much British comedy this year, it was rather disappointing and a bit boring. You know it could be funny, should be funny and had some good ideas, but perhaps one hour was too long. Although they did try and get a lot of plot in.
Robert Webb played Mr Secret Past (oh how funny) who believes he was an orphan, having been found and raised by 3 puritan maiden aunts and an uncle (the Albert Finney look-a-like). He owns a Shop of Stuff, next to the closed down Old Curiosity Shop, and is married to Katherine Parkinson and has 2 children. On Christmas Eve, Stephen Fry, a mysterious lawyer with a some-other made up name like Skullduggery or something, turns up to say that his client was owed money by Webb’s grandfather and so to repay this debt Fry takes all of Webb’s property. And as his wife and kids are his property – he also takes them and deposits them in Skint Prison. At the prison they meet Mr JollyTubs (again or some name along those lines) played by David Mitchell, who is always jolly and whose tummy expands with joy, and another mentalist old man (the Demon Headmaster) who is going on about getting married on Christmas.
Anyway, Webb eventually finds out that he is not an orphan but the immaculate conception of Miss Christmas-sham (yes, Miss Haversham), who was due to marry the mentalist on Christmas Day but was told he had died, and her father was a lawyer who used to be partners with Fry’s father. Cue, convoluted coincidences, flashbacks, a treacle-dependency, some singing urchins (Oliver Twist), a tunnelled escape, a last-minute wedding, a ghost of Christmas Past, and a happy ending.
2011 has not been a good year for the traditional half hour British sitcom. Life’s Too Short was a mess of Ricky Gervais’ inflated ego bursting everywhere; the kids in Outnumbered have grown up and are too scripted; Friday Night Dinner tried too hard; Twenty Twelve was amusing but not the kind of show to make you laugh out loud; Rev is also too sedate; Fresh Meat was not really a sitcom but an hour-long comedy drama and felt too long; Campus was also far too long at 50 minutes or however long it was and not as funny as it thought it was; Spy was probably the most traditional sitcom out there but got lost on Sky1.
It’s been a very good year for stand-up, some good turns on comedy panel shows (although there are too many tired panel shows as well), but where have the good British sitcoms gone? Maybe it’s just a fallow year and there’ll be some good stuff next year but I can’t see the commissioners really looking hard. US television and networks are a totally different beast, and they haven’t had a great year for new sitcoms either, but at least they’re trying and they have shows where they want the audience to laugh, and not just laugh once at the end of a set-piece but continuously through the half-hour. I’m not asking for more slapstick or Miranda knock-offs, but please British comic writers try and make us laugh in 2012 not just smile a bit and then turn off.