WE all need a laugh, but what should we be laughing at nowadays? According to the beard formerly known as Frankie Boyle, British comedy has hit a stale patch with broadcasters unwilling to take risks on edgier or alternative shows.
Delivering the Alternative MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival, Boyle said that safe shows such as Mrs Brown’s Boys were being commissioned above anything more alternative.
His lecture took the form of an interview with actor and writer Sharon Horgan, whose own series Pulling ran for two series before being cancelled by the BBC.
Boyle argues that “television has gone back past 1978. There’s a sort of air, it’s an air of you wouldn’t know there had been alternative comedy.”
I have never seen Pulling and a quick Google reveals that it is no longer available on the iPlayer. But I have seen Catastrophe, the Channel 4 sitcom about a splendidly dysfunctional couple, written by Horgan and Rob Delaney, and that is a sweet-and-sour belter of a show. Interestingly, Catastrophe was turned down by the BBC, which supports Boyle’s argument as far as the Corporation is concerned.
Anyway it’s very good and Horgan is both lovely and horrible in it. I have a soft spot for Horgan and enjoy watching her whether she is being lovely or horrible.
I am not sure Boyle is right about Mrs Brown’s Boys though. That riotous racket of a slapstick comedy does have edge. And it takes risks. It’s not for everyone and I struggled to stay in love with Mrs Brown after a brief infatuation, but this comedy is not safe, just popular.
Boyle is certainly right to point a finger at the BBC remaking all those classic sitcoms from the 1970s. I haven’t yet summoned up the enthusiasm to watch any of those. A whole season devoted to classic sit-coms seems like a drearily BBC sort of idea to me – and that’s from a Beeb fan.
And reports this morning that the BBC is in talks with John Cleese about making a new sitcom do not exactly lift the heart: only a year ago the notoriously difficult Mr Cleese was going around telling anyone who would listen, and a few who would not, that he would never ever work for the BBC again. My advice is to leave well alone and re-run Fawlty Towers instead (yet again)
But there is one BBC show I have only just discovered that upsets Boyle’s new law: a tragic, hilarious howl of a comedy called Fleagbag. I have been catching up with Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s series on iPlayer. It has been described as a “really, really, really, really bleak version of Miranda”
The link is that the heroine is tall and posh, that she makes snarky remarks directly to camera when she thinks no one is looking, and she can’t stop her life unravelling. The difference is that Fleabag lacks a sweet heart, is squalid and contains no likable characters, apart possibly from a dead friend. And Miranda, so far as I can recall, never lay in bed next to her boyfriend and masturbated while watching a Barack Obama speech on her laptop.
So, yes, Fleabag has a dark and anguished heart, but much good comedy is rooted in despair. I’ve not seen the whole series yet but doubt it will end well. Like Horgan in Catastrophe, Phoebe Waller-Bridge (pictured) is lovely and horrible – more of the second than the first, in truth. She is a caricature of despair in a sense, and yet seems very real and believable too. You love Fleabag – the only name her character is ever given – because she is real and suffering and selfish and mean. And because she looks like she needs a hug. Probably from Barack Obama.
She is foul-mouthed, frank and funny, and kind of gorgeous too, despite the constant self-laceration and the meanness. I reckon Frankie Boyle and his beard should watch Fleabag.
Footnote dated September 9: Just finished watching the whole series of Fleabag and it is a thing of sad and occasionally hilarious wonder. Do give it a go…