Thursday, 23 April 2009

Going out on a high

In a world where the TV sitcom had become all 'sit' and no 'com', it was gratifying to see that someone (the BBC, naturally) could still unearth a truly great exception. In Not Going Out, the Great British public were treated to a hilarious and brilliantly written show that packed more laughs into a half-hour than some comedies can muster in an entire series.

But Not Going Out will soon be no more. The BBC have, in their wisdom, decided to axe the programme claiming that the 'show had run its course of late' but myself and many others disagree. Such is the following of Not Going Out that an online petition has been created which has so far been signed by nearly 1,600 people.

So what is it that sets Not Going Out apart from other sitcoms? Well to a considerable extent, it's written by an exemplary stand-up comedian who happens to be the show's main star, Lee Mack. What he brings to the scripts is an eagerness to pack in as many jokes and funny lines as possible within the framework of the plot during every half hour story. That he actually achieves this so successfully while slowly building up your familiarity with each of the characters is nothing short of a minor miracle.

But Mack is not the only writer on the show. Andrew Collins and Peter Tilbury are also major contributors to the programme, helping to provide extra punch to some brilliantly funny dialogue. The humour can be found in many a snappy one-liner, in double entendres and in a raft of clever set pieces involving wonderful word play. Here's one example featuring two kids playing Trick or Treat at the flat of lead character Lee:

KID #2: Trick or treat!
LEE: Get off me doorstep - we're not in America.
KID #2: There's nothing wrong with adopting a bit of American culture.
LEE: Alright... get off me doorstep or I'll shoot ya.

...or another featuring a downright silly but nonetheless clever bit of schtik:

LEE: What are you doing looking in my wardrobe?
LUCY: That's none of your business
LEE: No no, that's NARNIA business...

...and they're just two of the funny snippets of dialogue that come at you machine-gun style during every episode. Looking around at the comments written by members of the public on TV forum sites, it's amazing to see how some people initially bemoaned the fact that there were too many jokes in each episode. Having now seen three superb series on BBC1, those same fans of the show must surely be relishing this all-too-rare attribute as something to behold.

For my money, Not Going Out looked like it may reach an early end when Mack's American co-star from series 1, Megan Dodds, was replaced by English actress Sally Bretton in series 2. Somehow Bretton's abrupt character Lucy didn't seem as endearing or cutesy as Dodds' Kate, yet by the end of series 3 my discontent had been mollified as the comedy continued to meet the high standards it had set previously.

All of which makes it such a shame to think Not Going Out won't be back for a fourth series. Though the BBC are yet to broadcast one last episode this Christmas, the apparent ease with which it's seen fit to pull the plug on the programme has left a bitter taste in the mouth of all those who enjoyed it.

And as many fans have already said on the web, there's still the hope that another channel will take up the baton and produce the show instead, but whether that happens remains a mystery. For the time being, I, along with millions of others will be keeping my fingers crossed that it does. Not Going Out is an absolute gem and deserves the chance to thrill audiences for many years to come.


Monday, 13 April 2009

Film Review: In The Loop

The tradition of movies made from UK TV sitcoms is long and inglorious. Off the top of the head, Dad's Army, Are You Being Served, Bless This House and the On The Buses never really successfully crossed the bridge from cathode to celluloid.

The Thick Of It however, is more than your average half hour sitcom. It is a much more intense, thoughtful and I'm bound to say intelligent proposition altogether. The story line in Armando Ianucci's political satire has matured over its two series and when a cinematic release of the project was announce, there were very few doubts that it would be able to adapt to the big screen. It has the scope, the depth of story and lest we forget, it has Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker, the magnificent, fearsome, Machiavellian spin doctor from the deepest most fettered bowels of Satan's imaginings.

In The Loop represents the next stage of Ianucci's adventure in political satire. The story centres around the machinations of the hawks in the US state department who are trying to instigate a war in the middle east while fending off the doves within their own ranks who are trying to stop them. In the middle of it all is the diminutive, in both stature and presence, Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), Minister of International Development for Her Majesty's Government who unwittingly turns both hawk and dove thanks to a succession of poorly managed meetings and press briefings.

Foster and his new advisor Toby played by Chris Addison (who played Ollie in the TV series) is sent to Washington at the request of the State Department and finds himself the poster boy for both camps. James Gandolfini plays, General Miller who thinks war is something that the US military can barely afford. Opposite him is Linton played by David Rache. A psychotic Rumsfeld type figure who is prepared to break any rule and plunge any depths to start a fight.

Eventually, Tucker joins the fray as all parties squabble, scheme, deal and no-deal around a single report that undermines the case for war and the evidence supporting conflict from the mysterious and possibly fabricated Iceman.

In places the film tends to suffer from its grander ambition. Most of the action takes place in true Whitehall farce fashion with people running in and out of offices and buildings. However, at times, you felt the film was restricted by this format and there was a bigger movie trying to break out. With some Hollywood funding, this film could have been a modern day Dr Strangelove.

However, these are only minor issues against what is a triumph for British comedy and political satire. The film features performances of immense stature and gravitas: Gandolfini as the lapsed Patton figure, devoted to his country but baffled by the way it does business; Tucker as the foul mouthed agent of Number 10. A cocaine charged genetically engineered ferret rampaging through the corridors of power on both sides of the Pond causing mayhem wherever he goes. Rache, is superb as the evangelical warmongering nutcase (fans of the 80's Dirty Harry spoof Sledge Hammer will particularly enjoy his performance). The exchanges between the him and Capaldi represent the highlight of a raft of magnificent set pieces in the film which are toe curling, foul mouthed, politically incorrect, appallingly cynical and very very funny.

The film also features a glorious cameo by Steve Coogan who plays a constituency member who's complaint about a collapsing brick wall threatens to not only bring down his mother's greenhouse but an entire Government department. It's Ianucci's instinctive understanding of the political process and how anything can be linked to everything if you are skilled, clever and devious enough that allow him to construct a story that is both unexpected yet inevitable.

In The Loop is released in cinemas April 17th.


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