Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Favorites from Scotland

With no intention of even approximating an exhaustive listing, I'll mention just four of my favorite comedies originating in Scotland. The first two shows I'll note both feature that wonderful comedic actor: Gregor Fisher. 

First, there's the classic series Rab C Nesbitt, based on the books by Ian Pattison. Rab is a layabout alcoholic, who survives, along with his wife and sons, on the dole. He avoids work like the plague. Yet, it's hard not to love him. He's something of a philosopher and oftens pauses during the show to talk to the viewing audience, to register his frustration with society. There were eight series and a handful of 'specials' produced. 

A more recent outing by Gregor Fisher is Empty, which just finished its first-series airing of six episodes. The show is written by Iain Connell and Robert Florence and co-stars the extremely talented Billy Boyd. The two men work for a company which clears and/or repairs empty or damaged flats (or, as in the final episode, commercial properties). Though there are a few other actors in the episodes, the stories essentially revolve around the interactions of Fisher and Boyd (Jacky and Tony). This is a gentle comedy with no laugh track. It's intelligent, endearing, and I certainly hope that another series is commissioned!

Third is the sketch show Chewin' The Fat. You'll notice a number of the cast are familiar, as they went on to greater fame in subsequent shows. The format is unremarkable, similar to most sketch shows. However, the writing is very clever, and the characters well-drawn. The bottom line is that it's very funny.

Finally, I recommend Still Game. Starring Ford Kiernan and Greg Hemphill, this show features them (with a wonderful make-up job) as a couple of widowed pensioners who have been lifelong friends and live in the same council estate. You'll recognize a number of the recurrent (and incidental) characters from Chewing' The Fat. There have been six series, several Christmas and Hogmanay Specials and a recording of a live performance at Glasgow's Cottiers Theatre. The words I would use to describe this series are: intelligently written, beautifully acted, very very funny, warm. Kiernan and Hemphill are thoroughly believable as the aged duo Jack and Victor. This is another modern classic to be.

My website may be viewed here.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Politics: Having A Laugh!

Absolute Power  is a gem of a program. Starring Stephen Fry and John Bird, it consists of two seasons, each containing six episodes. The co-stars play the officers of a major public-relations firm. As professional as they are cynical, they specialize in 'spinning' what appear to be major public-relations disasters into assets for their clients, all high-profile. 

For anybody who enjoys comedic spoofs of politics, I'd recommend several other shows as well. This list would include the following: Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister (a sequel to the first show). It's a delight watching the interplay between the minister (Paul Eddington) and his chief civil servant (Nigel Hawthorne). For a reality-based drama about political machinations, The Plot Against Harold Wilson is certainly worth watching.

Root Into Europe, a mini-series starring George Cole, is not, strictly speaking, a political comedy or drama, but it would likely appeal to anyone who enjoys any of the above-noted programs. Cole plays Henry Root, and the program follows the travels of Root and his wife throughout various European countries. Henry considers just about any place outside of Great Britain to be barely civilized, and his cynicism is touched with just the right amount of gentleness. Though his views are English-centric, he is really a basically gentle man.

The Thick Of It was a recent series, including several 'specials',  produced in 'mockumentary' style (similar to The Office, in that respect). Starring Chris Langham and Peter Capaldi, it also offered a scathingly cynical view of politics. For example, on the way to make a speech favoring one side of an issue, a minister is informed that the party-line has changed, and he now has to change his speech in accord with the new line. 

This Is David Lander offered six episodes, also in 'mockumentary' style, with Stephen Fry portraying a crusading political reporter. Highly recommended.

Mock The Week is a fun celebrity quiz show about recent politics. The participants are all noted comedians, and host Dara O'Briain's opening monologues are always funny and biting. Five series have already been completed. Also, there's always the classic politics/news sketch show Not The Nine O'Clock News.

Two shows which lean more towards the gentler side of a comedic look at politics, but still very enjoyable and well-written, are My Dad's The Prime Minister and No Job For A Lady (starring Penelope Keith). For an over-the-top view of politics and politicians there's always the classic Rik Mayall's New Statesman. 

Finally, I wouldn't want to forget an excellent show based on fact: Alan Clark Diaries. This six episode series is actually based on the diaries of former minister Alan Clark. 

There's certainly a lot here to whet the comedic appetite of anyone interested in the political scene.

My website can be accessed here.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

World of Lee Evans

World of Lee Evans aired in 1995. This was a short series, only four episodes, each about twenty-five minutes. If you've seen Evans either doing standup or in his excellent short-lived sitcom Lee Evans, So What Now!, then you're familiar with how much of his talent lies in physical humor, movement and facial expressions. Still, words are an important part of these performances. On the other hand, the 1995 outing is almost a return to the world of the silent comics: Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd. There's a minimum of dialogue, usually just brief comments. Most of the comedy in these four episodes relies on physical humor, much of it hilarious. It often revolves around misunderstandings and conflicting expectations. The other performers get right into the spirit of things. It's just regrettable that only four episodes were made.

[My website is at: stanandjeri.com]

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Another Canadian Sitcom

Since my last post, I've come across another Canadian sitcom well worth mentioning: Twitch City. The show revolves around a young man, Curtis, who never leaves his house, seems to spend just about all his waking time watching television, and his interactions with his tenants. The writing is clever, the plots are quirky, and there's no laugh-track. There were two seasons produced, for a total of thirteen episodes.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Sitcoms from Canada

There are a number of brilliant (imho) television shows from Canada that don't receive the notice or respect they deserve.

First, there's Trailer Park Boys. This show has already produced seven seasons, several specials, and a feature-length movie. The show follows the exploits (usually just the other side of legal) of Ricky, Julian and Bubbles, their extended families and friends. Their nemesis is the trailer-park manager and his strange (to say the least) assistant. The language can get kind of 'raw', but, if you can get past that, the show is hilarious and has already become a cult classic.

Next, I'll mention Made In Canada. This went through five seasons, though the length of each season was widely variable. For example, season one had six episodes, and season five had seventeen episodes. It's in the style of a mock-documentary, with the characters frequently speaking to the viewer. The stories revolve around the life and work of the CEO and top executives of a second-rate Canadian television production company. They have only two reasonably successful syndicated shows and are constantly trying to capitalize on these quality-disasters. If you liked The Office (especially the original series from Great Britain), you'll love Made In Canada.

Finally, I'd recommend a series from Saskatchewan, now in its fifth season: Corner Gas. This gem showcases the eccentric residents of a small, obscure town (village?) called Dog River. The writing is both clever, funny (very!) and seems to genuinely capture the individual personalities of the various residents. Most of the interactions take place in the gas station/convenience store and Ruby's Restaurant.

An additional note: my website can be accessed here.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Some Quirky; Some Domestic

  • One Foot In The Grave has to be considered among the great classic comedies. Victor  Meldrew (played by Richard Wilson, in the role of his career) is one of those hapless individuals who seem to be unable to avoid catastrophe. He's involuntarily retired and is aware of and annoyed by all the little injustices of everyday life. He might be considered the early incarnation of Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm (though Victor tends to be less devious than Larry)
  • Only Fools And Horses  is another classic. David Jason and Nicholas Lyndhurst are brothers who work the flea-markets and are always looking to bend the rules, however slightly, to gain an 'edge'
  • Outside Edge is in the format of a domestic-sitcom but stretches way beyond it. It chronicles the misadventures (typically, hilarious) of an amateur cricket team
  • Prospects  is an unfairly little-known drama/comedy, starring Gary Olson (of 2Point4 Children). He and his buddy are always on the lookout for a way to make a buck (pound), but their seeming prospects  are usually a disaster
  • Roger Roger  is another of those unfairly overlooked shows which deserve a wider audience and greater appreciation. Follows the exploits of the owner and drivers of a small mini-cab company
  • Root Into Europe follows Root and his wife on a tour of Europe. He's of the belief that everyone not British is unavoidably backwards, and he shows no hesitancy in expressing his opinions to anyone and everyone. Seemingly paradoxical, it's both caustic and sweet
  • Royle Family  is almost the anti-domestic domestic sitcom. It is heavily dependent on the brilliant writing, as it focuses on the interactions of the Royles as they sit around their living room in front of the television. A modern classic
  • Shelley is an unusual program in that its main character, James Shelley, is a University graduate layabout who interacts with all variety of individuals, expressing his never-ending philosophies and opinions. Brilliantly written, it is more likely to elicit a rush of chuckles and smiles rather than belly-laughs
  • Shine On Harvey Moon follows the life of Harvey Moon, who has demobbed from the armed services, returning to his family. His wife has left him, though they continue to see each other. He is devoted to his son and daughter, lives with his mother. More a comedy/drama than a sitcom. Addictive. Don't say I didn't warn you
  • The Smoking Room is, as the title implies set solely in the 'smoking room' of a large company. The employees meet and interact act there. Beautifully written and acted, it demands close attention
  • Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em details the misadventures of the ultimate klutz, Frank Spencer. He tries so hard but gets everything wrong, despite being so endearing. He's become a classic figure/name in British folklore. Believe it or not, he's played by Michael Crawford, who originated the role of the Phantom in Andrew Lloyd Weber's Phantom Of The Opera. Difficult to believe it's the same person!
  • Steptoe And Son is another true classic. Follows the lives, adventures, mishaps, and interactions of a father and son 'rag and bone' team
  • Till Death Us Do Part  is another classic. Alf Garnett has become a figure of almost  mythic proportions in British culture. His family loves him but sees him as a pathetic figure...stridently conservative (though working-class) to the point of neanderthal-like views. He's bigoted, intolerant, strident...but, strangely, loveable. If it exists, he's got an opinion, and he's never hesitant to express it, no matter to whom or where
  • Trailer Park Boys  is a Canadian show which has become a cult favorite, to the point where a feature-length movie has been made of the show. Think trailer-trash, think unbelievable situations, think very funny, and you've pinpointed this show. However, be forewarned: a LOT of foul language. Any violence, though, is of the 'comic book' variety, never truly violent. Takes place in a trailer-park in Canada
  • The Visit  is an unusual domestic sitcom in that it takes place solely in the visiting room of a prison. Follows the interactions of a select group of inmates and their families and a group of guards who clearly would rather be working elsewhere. Very clever writing...very funny
  • Watching  revolves around two sisters, their families, friends and the 'watching' they do at a local pub, speculating about the lives of the people they don't know
  • You Rang M'Lord  a sort of parody of Upstairs, Downstairs, focuses on the life of a Lord, his family and his idiosyncratic servants (who not only run the household but, actually, manipulate their employers

Sunday, January 27, 2008

More Opinions and Recommendations

Another quirky sitcom that's easy to miss because it may fall under the rubric of "domestic sitcom" is Gavin And Stacey".

Here are some more shows that are very clever and funny but easy to inadvertently miss because they could somewhat loosely be called 'domestic sitcoms'.
  • The Grimleys
  • Home To Roost (stars John Thaw in one of his rare appearances in a sitcom, rather than his Inspector Morse
  • I Didn't Know You Cared (one of those quirky domestic sitcoms full of eccentric family members...should rightly be a classic)
  •  Kath And Kim (an extended Australian family. Focus is on mother and adult daughter, their relationships and misadventures. Definitely worth a look, this is a current series)
  • Keeping Up Appearances (starring Patricia Rutledge. She's an ordinary housewife who has pretentions of being 'posh', to the consistent frustration of her husband, family and neighbours. Another classic. Written by Roy Clark of Last Of The Summer Wine)
  • Kumars At No. 42 (an Indian family in Britain hosts a tv chat show in their house! Clever dialogue involving the family interactions as well as funny interviews with their guests. A long-running series)
  • Love Soup (the ideal couple who just never seem to actually meet each other. We follow their parallel lives. Returning for a second series)
  • May To December (a middle-aged barrister and a young woman fall in love. Light but somewhat sophisticated comedy)
  • Meet The Wife (a very early comedy starring Thora Hird. Worth seeing)
  • My Family (an ongoing series, based on the American model: a stable of writers. Still, very funny situations and top-notch acting from the costars, Robert Lindsay and Zoe Wanamaker. The earlier series especially benefit from the antics of the older son, Nick, who later was largely written out of the series)
I'll continue in my next posting with more recommendations in the domestic-sitcom style sitcom.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Opinions and Recommendations

I’ve always found it interesting and frustrating that a television program may trigger diametrically opposite reactions/opinions from various viewers. Yet, the opinion is virtually never couched in the qualifying “imho” (i.e. in my humble opinion); it’s typically expressed in the absolute. Not “I find this show to be…”, rather, it’s “this show is…” Let’s face it: it’s ALWAY just an opinion! So, what I plan on doing is offering my opinion and adding suggestions in the form of “If you agree with me on this opinion, then you’re likely to agree with me on the following opinion”.

Just as an example: if you like “Silent Witness”, you’re probably going to like “Waking The Dead”.

If you like ‘quirky’ comedy: the kind of humor that’s subtle, provokes more of a smile and a chuckle rather than a ‘belly-laugh”, here are some programs (certainly not an exhaustive list) that will likely appeal to you. As I noted earlier, if you’ve seen any of these shows and disagree with my opinion, you’re likely to disagree with my similar recommendations.

“15 Storeys High” (daily life of roommates in a high-rise council-estate)

“2Point4 Children” (on the surface, another domestic sitcom, but it shows itself to be much more than that)

“Absolute Power” (the travails of an “anything goes” public-relations firm; co-stars Stephen Fry and John Bird)

“Adrian Mole” (based on the fictional diaries of a young man)

“Alan Clark Diaries” (political humor)

“Armando Iannucci Shows” (a series of “mockumentaries”)

“The Armstrongs” (a mockumentary in the style of The Office)

If you liked As Time Goes By then you’d probably like:

A Fine Romance (also with Judi Dench, and co-starring her late husband MIchael WIlliams)

After Henry (stars Prunella Scales - think Fawlty Towers…Sybil. This is a light-hearted comedy about the misadventures and daily life of a widow, her adult daughter, and her mother)

All At No. 20 (stars Maureen Lipman, who runs a boarding house for a rather eccentric group of people)

Amazing Mrs. Pritchard (about an ‘ordinary’ housewife who challenges the establishment and becomes Prime Minister)

Barbara (try to imagine a sophisticated, modern I Love Lucy…that’ll get you close to this wacky comedy. Stars Gwen Taylor)

This is a continuation of suggestions/recommendations focussed on domestic-style sitcoms.

Being April - stars Pauline Quirke as a single-mother with a bunch of children by different fathers. What gives this an interesting twist is that each of the fathers tries to have a supportive relationship with both Pauline and his own child

Birds Of A Feather - two sisters, whose husbands are both in prison, try, unsuccessfully, to live a ‘normal’ life

Bless Me Father - Arthur Lowe plays a parish priest. It’s based on real-life experiences of the creator/writer. Charming and funny

Blessed - a greatly underrated show that lasted only a single season. Written and directed by Ben Elton and starring Ardal O’Hanlon (think Father Ted), this will have anyone who’s raised children laughing-out-loud. I highly recommend it

Bread - this is a classic series about a close-knit family in Liverpool. Father has left; Mother ‘rules’ the four boys and one girl, each with a distinct and individual personality. Written by Carla Lane

Butterflies - Another clever and sophisticated family sitcom written by Carla Lane. See Nicholas Lyndhurst as a teenager (before Only Fools And Horses)

Carrie And Barry - stars Neil Morrisey and written by Simon Nye (Men Behaving Badly; Is It Legal; and so many more) as a husband and wife. Really hard to describe what makes this show something special, except that the scripts are really funny and the acting matches

Coupling - comic misadventures of a group of couples. Sophisticated, clever and very funny

Dad - if you enjoyed Barbara, you’ll enjoy this. Think a male I Love Lucy

Dear John - this was later made as a series in the US, starring Judd Hirsh. I think the original is better. It’s about, John, a man whose wife has left him. He joins a singles-group. Of course, his co-members are eccentric and unusual, as is the group leader

Ever Decreasing Circles - Richard Briers plays a somewhat obsessive-compulsive man who, to his wife’s frustration, is always organizing and attempting to control all the activities in his neighborhood. Top notch acting and scripts

Executive Stress - Penelope Keith and Geoffrey Palmer (later, replaced by Peter Bowles). They’re married and work for the same publishing-firm but must keep the fact that their married a secret

Faith In The Future - Linda Bellingham and Julie Sawalha in the sequel to Second Thoughts

Fall And Rise Of Reginald Perrin - this is probably my favorite British comedy, a true classic. Traces the adventures of a man who becomes dissatisfied with the corporate world in which he’s been employed and tries make a difference. Written by David Nobbs (adapted from his books) and starring the late-great Leonard Rossiter. Don’t miss this one!!!

Fat Friends - the lives, interactions and ‘adventures’ of a group of people/families brought together solely by their desire to lose weight and their membership in a weight-loss group. Touching, clever, beautifully acted, funny, sad. It has it all

Fear, Stress, and Anger - a quirky domestic sitcom. Difficult to describe, but if you liked Barbara and/or Dad, you’ll like this. Stars Peter Davidson and Pippa Haywood