We’re not having a laugh

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Tragic news from the English comedy store: it’s mostly empty. The best comedy presently on mainstream TV is Nurse Jackie (BBC2 Mondays) from the US; the only bright spot of native televisual wit is Rab C Nesbitt (BBC2 Thursdays), which is Scottish and 20 years old. Last year’s Miranda on BBC2, written by and starring Miranda Hart, brought a very fine comic talent to wider notice but the new year in comedy has so far been as limp as England’s batting in the final cricket Test against South Africa.

Rab C Nesbitt, who has been played by Gregor Fisher (pictured) for the past two decades, has retained much of its grungy, cooncil-hoose ambience – the men wavering between fantasy and uselessness, the women unillusioned and razor-tongued. Some of the sting has been drawn, though: Rab, an unemployed drunk for the past 20 years, is now off the booze, his son off drugs. Scotland, still the place to go for these prompters of illusion and hasteners of death, is striving to be proper but can, in this show, still provide soil for good wit.

It is no disrespect to the show and its star, nor to its writer and creator Ian Pattison, to say it rests on and draws from the comic traditions of Glasgow, a city that saw, in a long postwar glory, the maturing of the talents of Stanley Baxter, Rikki Fulton, Jimmy Logan and the master, Chic Murray – as well as the later blaze that was and is Billy Connolly. They were acid, fantastic and in hateful love with their city and its culture, which they helped create. Fisher recalls them at their best when, in a moment of park bench amorousness towards his inevitably long-suffering wife, Mary Doll, Rab C suggests that they “nick intae the lavvie and gi’e ye a belt up the knickers fur auld times sake ... we cud gae intae the disabled, it’s roomier noo we’ve filled oot a bit”. When he waxes romantic about his own past, she reminds him that he had become a “psychotically disabled alcoholic”. “Ah’m frae Govan,” he snaps back. “It wudda happened onywey.”

Making comedy in the dregs of a once-proletarian city with as strong a native culture as Belfast or Liverpool, the Welsh industrial valleys or London’s East End is one thing. Fastening it to the febrile worlds of advertising, broadcasting and fashion is another. It can be done: C4’s Drop the Dead Donkey, which ran in the 1990s, had a sharpness that owed much to its all-but-live production schedule, as well as to sharp scripts and sharper acting. Moving Wallpaper (ITV 2008-2009) worked largely because of the concentrated clowning of Ben Miller as the manic producer of a failing TV soap. But it’s not being done now.

Material Girl (BBC1 Thursdays), billed as a “comedy drama”, has at least a certain perkiness about it, as it unwinds a tale about Ali, a talented young designer who leaves the salon of high-bitch Davina to set up on her own with somewhat-shady Marco as her business partner. The deep structure of this shallow piece is that Ali’s ambition is counterpointed by her lovely nature. Although her best friend warns her that “you can’t heal everything with fashion”, that’s really what she does, putting a talented writer, whose autobiography has been gutted by its film version, into a dress much more glamorous than that worn by the self-obsessed star at the premiere. Along the way, a lot of bitchery, both gay and straight; some very soppy romance; a deal of catwalking; flurries of flouncing. Not funny but easy on the eye.

Bellamy’s People (BBC2 Thursdays) was created by Paul Whitehouse and Charlie Higson, elder statesmen of the comedy genre, and is a follow-up to their Radio 4 hit Down the Line. As its narrative mechanism, it has a phone-in host leaving his studio for a tour of the UK to explore the nature of the Brits. This allows for a gallery of characters to be displayed – two aged aristocratic sisters, one a Communist, the other a Nazi (shades of the Mitfords); a Muslim community leader whom no one in his community knows; an ageing rock star who thinks his younger self was a prat; two celebrity-struck, squeaking women in early middle age who form the phone-in host’s fan club, and so on. Some trembled on the edge of being funny but all showed how hard it is to do caricatures well if you are not a talented mimic.

Bottom of the heap is The Persuasionists (BBC2 Wednesdays), a series whose sadness is deepened by beginning a week before the return of Mad Men (BBC4) for a third series next week. Like Mad Men, it is set in an advertising agency; unlike Mad Men, it is forced and fevered, as well as being fantastically, ferociously, un-funny. The first episode, built round the attempt to construct a campaign to sell a Cockney cheese, showed the formula: a scriptwriter, Billy, acts as the ironic foil for a variety of would-be lunatics, absorbed in their idiocy – the aggressively Cockney manufacturer of the cheese, the sadistic Australian agency boss, the daffy blonde who sleeps with the client, the office Lothario who parades about with a huge pencil, which he says is a stand-in (so to speak) for his penis.

What lessons do Nurse Jackie, and Miranda before it, teach? That the best comedy skates on the thinnest of ice over pathos and tragedy. Last week’s Nurse Jackie had unrequited love, family dysfunction, an abandoned baby and near murder. You had to laugh.

john.lloyd@ft.com
More columns at www.ft.com/lloyd

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