This week we’ll look at an intelligent spy drama and an oddity of a primetime BBC show but we start with the comedy of the year so far.
Over the past few years BBC One hasn’t been the purveyor of quality sitcoms that it once was. The channel that once gave us Only Fools and Horses and Porridge has recently offered up such gems as Citizen Khan and Mrs Brown’s Boys. However, there’s occasionally a diamond in the rough such as Outnumbered and this week saw another such example in Peter Kay’s Car Share. Oddly, the BBC decided that the entire series of Peter Kay’s first scripted comedy in seven years should be put on the iPlayer for audiences to devour before the opener even aired. This tactic paid off for those of who are internet-savvy with almost three million people tuning in to watch the show online. However, I feel that the online airing for Car Share is to compensate for the odd scheduling that BBC One have given it. Instead of airing it on Friday nights, the usual place for comedy, BBC One has put it on Wednesday and Thursday at 9:30. The viewing figures, while impressive, weren’t as great as they would have been if the BBC had promoted the show a little more. In my mind it is a show that deserves as much promotion as possible as it’s the best mainstream sitcom since the aforementioned Outnumbered. It also sees Kay return to form after several years in the wilderness and it includes the trademark charm which was missing from his satirical Channel 4 special Britain’s Got the Pop Factor.
Car Share sees Kay portray down-to-earth supermarket manager John who agrees to share journeys to and from work with a colleague as part of a new scheme. Unfortunately for John he’s paired up with vivacious promotions girl Kayleigh who creates a memorable impression on their first ride together. I have to say I was quite sceptical during Car Share’s first ten minutes as it included a gag in which Kayleigh soaked John with her own urine. This felt like a cheap joke and one that would be more at home on something like Mrs Brown’s Boys than it was on what turned out to be quite an observational comedy. However this attempt at broad comedy was later forgotten about as John and Kayleigh started conversations about their own love lives and home situations. Kay and co-writers Tim Reid and Paul Coleman have taken their time to craft two characters who the audience can easily warm to. John is one of those people who doesn’t like to rock the boat and is happy without a woman in his life. Meanwhile Kayleigh is at a crossroads in her life and has resorted to internet dating as a result although not all of her potential matches are what they seem. Over the course of the six episodes the writers give us the impression that John and Kayleigh’s budding friendship may lead to more. But the end of the series sees them part as friends while we get the impression that the pair’s car sharing days may be at an end. Although I enjoyed the banter and the observational humour one thing I wasn’t a fan of were the bizarre fantasy sequences. Each episode saw Kayleigh drift into her own little world and the results were strange to say the least. The oddest example of this had to be an under-the-sea inspired sequence which occurred after the pair journeyed through a car wash.
Even though other characters did appear throughout the course of the series, this was really the John and Kayleigh show. In fact if the programme did have a third character then it was Kayleigh’s favourite radio station Forever FM. Anybody who has to endure a local radio station will recognise the segments and music played on the station whose motto is ‘yesterday’s hits now and forever’. It’s clear that Kay put in a lot of time and effort to make sure every piece of music fit the station with his love of retro tunes coming into play throughout the series. Forever FM also offers up some of my favourite moments of the series via the scarily realistic radio ads that air during the series’ many car journeys. I felt that it was odd to see Kay play a relatively normal guy after years of seeing him portray larger-than-life characters such as Brian Potter and Geraldine McQueen. I personally think that Kay excelled at playing a normal chap who was both believable and likeable. Meanwhile relative newcomer Sian Gibson was the star of the show as the chatty but insecure Kayleigh. Gibson had previously worked with Kay on several occasions and it seems that their friendship is a strong one as the chemistry between the pair is particularly winning. As I previously mentioned, the final episode of Car Share suggested that Kayleigh and John’s days together would be no more. Indeed, as Car Share has been sitting on the shelf for a couple of years I think that Kay had already decided that a second series wasn’t on the cards. But I hope he and the rest of the cast and crew change their minds as I think the nation has been charmed by Car Share and it would be a crime if we didn’t get a second run of this fantastic sitcom.
Another show that has been sitting around for a while now is Toby Whithouse’s spy drama The Game which has already aired over in America. In fact even the Australians have watched even more episodes of the drama than we had before it came to BBC Two this week. The Game centres around Tom Hughes’ Joe Lamb, an MI5 Agent whose special skills have allowed him to ascend to the top of the agency in a short time. However, as the opening scenes of The Game inform us, Joe was willing to give up his job for the love of a good woman. Unfortunately Joe’s lover was killed off by the Russians but thankfully MI5 allowed him back primarily due to his backing of the agency’s boss; a man simply known by the name of Daddy. I think that part of the reason Daddy likes Joe is that he doesn’t go in for workplace politics and instead has his mind focused on bringing down Soviet spies. The episode gets going properly when Daddy’s inner circle learns of a Professor at Reading University who was a Soviet spy but is willing to give up his country’s secrets in order to gain immunity. Professor Arkady informs them of the mysterious ‘Operation Glass’ and also points them in the direction of a government minister who has a part in the plan. Later in the episode, Joe is paired up with everyman police detective Jim Fenchurch, whose presence allows Whithouse the opportunity to introduce his characters. The relationship between Joe and Fenchurch is one of The Game’s most interesting elements as the agent and the civilian build up a begrudging respect for one another by the end of episode one. One thing I did have an issue with was the pacing of the episode but at some points it couldn’t be help as the nature of a spy drama means that a lot of the scenes have to be populated by men talking in rooms. Thankfully Whithouse made up for a saggy middle act with a fantastic closing sequence which made me question everything I’d seen so far.
I think the majority of televised spy dramas have a hard time living up to the legacy of the brilliant Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. While I don’t think any show will quite master that I think that The Game gave it a good go and had some great elements to it. Whithouse has assembled a number of interesting characters including Joe, Fenchurch and Daddy. However the most interesting character has to be head of counter espionage Bobby Waterhouse who is always a thorn in Joe’s side. Bobby is presented as a very ambitious character albeit one who is socially awkward especially when it comes to talking to the opposite sex. Bobby also has an odd relationship with his mother whose attempts to get him up the pecking order in MI5 put me in mind of The Manchurican Candidate. I particularly warmed to Bobby thanks to the well-rounded performance from the always reliable Paul Ritter. Ritter brings out all of Bobby’s nuances perfectly and also has a believable chemistry with Judy Parfitt as his scheming mother. In the lead role of Joe, Tom Hughes brings a brooding intensity to affairs although at times I felt he made his character too distant to care about. Shaun Dooley is seemingly attempting to be in every drama this year by playing the affable PC Fenchurch whilst Brian Cox is perfect in the role of Daddy. Praise must also go to the production team whose period design is truly outstanding as is the way that Whithouse utilises the 1972 setting. Additionally I found Daniel Pemberton’s score to be brilliant as it tended to enhance the dramatic nature of certain scenes. Although not as compelling as I thought it might be, The Game is still an excellent spy drama and will appeal to those who were a big fan of the BBC’s original Le Carre adaptations.
Finally we come to BBC One’s latest factual entertainment show in which six celebrities learn what life was like in Victorian times. 24 Hours in the Past gathers up a sextet of famous faces and supplants them in the Black Country Museum for four days to learn what life was like for their Victorian ancestors. Although all six are probably getting paid quite a lot of money for slumming it all of them have to come up with different reasons for their participation in the show. For example Ann Widdecombe wants to know what life was like for her Victorian grandmother whilst Alistair MacGowan is a bit fan of the Victorian era. Meanwhile Miquita Oliver, who’s possibly getting any work going after her bankruptcy, says she’ll empathise with those who’ve fallen on hard times. Making this look more like a factual experiment than a way to make celebrities miserable are historians Fi Glover and Ruth Goodman who explain the various stages of the experiment. Goodman especially seems to enjoy dressing in period garb as she informs the celebrities just why they’re doing what they’re doing. The first episode is set around the removal of rubbish in which our stars see themselves working for a rag and bone man played by Dan Hill from Storage Hunters UK. Throughout the course of the first episode there seems to be an obsession with horse manure as its mentioned several times especially when Zoe Lucker and Colin Jackson are tasked with cleaning it up. Meanwhile Outnumbered’s Tyger Drew-Honey seems to be auditioning for a role as The Artful Dodger as he attempts to steal buttons from Hill. Like any of these shows, the aim seems to be to embarrass the celebs as much as possible whilst at the same time present a facade that this is all done in the name of history. Whilst Goodman and Hill try their best to convince us of the intellectual benefits of the show at the end of the day most people have tuned in to see Ann Widdecombe put through various hardships and I think that at least those viewers will be satisfied. However, I didn’t find the show particularly entertaining and it’s certainly a show that would be more at home being shown in schools than it is on primetime BBC One.