Andy Nyman in ‘Campus’ – Courtesy of Channel 4
by Gary Cansell
If you’ve ever wanted to see a towering numeral made entirely from umbrellas you could do worse than visit the Channel 4 head office in London. That’s what I did on Thursday and I can assure you the effect is wonderful. I was in town to watch pilot episodes of Channel 4’s second Comedy Showcase. The series of seven comedy singles kicks off on November 6 (at 10pm) and boasts a wealth of new and established talent. Aired in 2007, the first showcase was a triumph, spawning full-series commissions for The Kevin Bishop Show, Plus One and Free Agents.
Shoulders having been suitably rubbed, I grabbed a seat next to a guy in a cream suit and took out my biro and notepad. He asked what did I do. “Journalist,” I replied. “And who are you?” “Oh, I wrote one of these,” he said, nonchalantly gesturing towards the programme in his hand. Then he turned to me and looked a bit more serious. “Make sure you laugh hardest at that one.”
How many misfits does it take to run a university? Should this question ever pop up in the miscellaneous round of a pub quiz somewhere in Weirdchester, you’ll be grateful for having watched Campus, the new show conceived by Victoria Pile and the team behind Green Wing and Smack The Pony.
At the show’s heart is chief misfit Jonty de Wolfe. Played by Andy Nyman, the megaphone-wielding, peppermint tea-sipping Vice Chancellor turns kooky, quirky and crass up to eleven. Joseph Millson (Casino Royal) is lecherous literature lecturer Matthew Beer, and Dolly Wells (Star Stories) takes a marvellous turn as a behind-the-scenes worker nicknamed “the big shit” as a schoolgirl. “Because I was a big shit,” she explains, “and also because I do big shits.”
Campus is set in the fictitious Kirke University and looks every bit the “ensemble comedy”. The camerawork is jittery without irritating, and the writers have conjured a veritable symphony of comic characters. On the evening the show was introduced with no little wryness as “not the Green Wing set in a university.” Derivative? Perhaps. But I’d be happy to watch the Green Wing set anywhere, thanks very much.
Pete v Life
The eponymous Pete is played by the cherub-haired Rafe Spall (He Kills Coppers). Although his coiffure is angelic, the twenty-something sports writer has a devilish mind and a potty mouth to match. Look out for the scene in which he presents a birthday gift to girlfriend Chloe’s mother: if you can watch without cringing or creasing up I’ll eat my fez. Pete proves skilled at saying the wrong thing entirely, time and again. And even though it’s impossible to avoid anticipating his saying the wrong thing entirely, which significantly blunts the effect of his saying the wrong thing entirely, the writing is super sharp and crisp as a Quaver.
Less successful is the show’s USP: the more traditional sitcom treatment is spliced with commentary and graphics deconstructing the hapless hero’s every move. No doubt the makers of the award-winning Peep Show know what they’re doing, but for me the two avenues never quite meet as a coherent whole. Granted, the idea is original and clever. But does this combination guarantee great television? Similarly, I’d agree that the running analysis, provided courtesy of a sports commentating duo, lends to the show an extra dimension. But my fear is that it might clutter what could have been a terrific, if somewhat straighter-laced, comedy.
Don’t be dissuaded from checking out the full episode, though. I’d love to be proved wrong, not least because the hardest laugh came from my immediate right. Clearly Pete v Life was “that one”.
Without The Office, it’s difficult to believe many of these shows would have been conceived, let alone commissioned. So it’s no surprise to learn who dipped his oar into this one. Phil Bowker’s creation was script-edited by one of Hollywood’s most unlikely leading men: Ricky Gervais.
The episode follows new recruit and recent graduate Christopher as he is ushered into the weird world of mobile phone retail on a one-day trial. Brought in to replace Gary Patel, who has been arrested after scrapping with Top Shop workers, again, Christopher must make a sale by 6.00pm. Bowker uses his central character to explore his curious cast. We meet a boss with an obsession more befitting a teenage boy, wink wink, a female co-worker “married to the job”, and a black salesman convinced Christopher is a reformed fascist attempting, like Nick Griffin, to appear respectable by growing out his skinhead and donning a suit.
PhoneShop is touted as showing a world with which we’re all familiar, but certain characters undermine that description with their OTTness. What made The Office so successful was that its cast were ordinary people: flawed, hopeful, and faintly ridiculous. Will Bowker’s manager (played by Martin Trenaman) take up where David Brent left off? Jury’s out, for me.
The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret
Award for best title of the night goes to this mouthful. And despite the titular clunk it’s the slickest of the bunch, too. American comedian David Cross (Arrested Development) co-wrote the pilot and plays Todd Margaret, an office drone who serendipitously bags a job heading up the UK division of a US multinational. He is tasked with shifting a mountain of shonky Korean energy drinks before his boss visits in a week. Sadly for Todd—and fortunately for the viewer—he knows nothing about sales or British culture. Nor does he know how to charm beautiful café-owner Alice.
The cast includes Sharon Horgan (Free Agents), Will Arnett (30 Rock), and the legendary music video director, actor, and award-winning filmmaker Spike Jonze. “The cast is a crazy dream team,” Cross recently told the LA Times. Easy to see why.
Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo (Arrested Development), the show is well-paced and beautifully shot. Oh, and I hereby bestow upon TIPDOTM another invented award, this one for best line of the night. Partly because it’s a little naughty, and partly because I’d never forgive myself for spoiling the surprise, I shan’t repeat it here. But it involves a hyperactive Todd dashing around a café, a clutch of bemused pensioners, a strategically placed expletive and the barbaric misuse of an adjective. You’ll understand once you see it!
The Amazing Dermot
Rhys Darby (Murray Hewitt in Flight of Conchords) stars as the deliciously offensive Dermot Flint in a comedy executive produced by Ash Atalla (The Office and The I.T. Crowd). Darby plays Dermot Flint, a master illusionist and stage hypnotist whose wife has split and whose TV show has been cancelled, all within the space of a week. The episode follows antipodean Dermot as he checks into rehab following a highly publicised court case involving hypnosis, two brothers, and French kissing. Throwing a spanner in his character-reformation works are a deaf nurse (“does she know she’s deaf?” wonders Dermot) and a body double played by Green Wing actor Darren Boyd.
Dermot is invested with a winning combination of foul language, misunderstanding, a titanic ego and absolutely no self-awareness. Anyone familiar with Flight of Conchords will know Darby has brilliant timing, and this role looks set to bolster his reputation as a great actor. Next to TIPDOTM, I’m most excited about this one.
Curiously, organisers saved the worst for last with Guantanamo Phil. The show follows Phil Mill (Steve Edge, Star Stories), a former Woolworths assistant manager (all Woolworths assistant managers are former, aren’t they?). Phil tries to readjust to his old life in Stoke, having recently returned from Afghanistan—he was captured by US Marines and imprisoned for six years having been mistaken for a terrorist while bird watching near the Afghan border.
Now then. The debate over what is and is not fair game for comedy has been raging since time immemorial. Or thereabouts. But repeated references to prisoner rape alongside photographs redolent of the horrific images that emerged from Abu Ghraib just didn’t sit well with me. IMHO comedy ought to test limits. But comedians who court controversy, like Chris Morris, always respect the cardinal rule: it absolutely must be funny. Brass Eye is offensive and funny. The same can be said of Dermot Flint. Parts of what I saw of Guantanamo Phil were just, well, offensive, and the pilot received the most muted reception of the night.
My programme tells me the production company behind the show is “currently in development with an Olympics ‘mockumentary’ called Going For Gold.” I wouldn’t like to damn a drama having seen a few minutes that might well have suffered from poor editing, but with Guantanamo Phil it feels as if Busby Productions were going for something a little more down-to-earth. Bronze, perhaps.
And so . . .
Save for a seventh show, for which there was no pilot, nor title, that completes the roundup. As ever, use this only as a rough guide. The time-honoured rule remains: suck it and see.