[italic]I was wondering what happened to Ben Elton.[/italic]
Ben Elton's exhaustingly unfunny new sitcom, The Wright Way, feels like the work of a socialist Richard Littlejohn, says Michael Deacon.
Some who start out on the Left stay defiantly where they are; others, as they age, drift grumbling to the Right. Ben Elton, 54 next month, has managed something unique. He’s done both. Or so it seems, judging by his new sitcom, The Wright Way (Tuesday, BBC One). It’s a fist-shaking farce about Elf ’n’ Safety, pointless bureaucracy and council pen-pushers – yet at the same time it features lesbian lovers, mocks the posh and pays obeisance to the NHS. It feels like the work of a socialist Richard Littlejohn, or a reactionary Polly Toynbee.
The Wright Way stars David Haig as a health and safety official called Gerald Wright (yes, the old surname-pun-in-the-title trick – you’re chuckling already). Fussy, stuffy and irritable, Gerald is meant to be annoying, but actually the main reason he’s annoying isn’t his fussiness or his stuffiness or his irritability. It’s the fact that, whatever the circumstances, he appears to be reciting a Ben Elton stand-up routine.
Here he is, complaining about an electric hand-dryer. “I’d get more hot air flow if I stood behind a flatulent hamster!” Splutteringly irate observational humour about mundane inconvenience, with gobbets of crudity tossed in (middle-aged men’s hairy ears look “a bit pubic”): Gerald speaks fluent Eltonese. A divorcee in suburban Essex, Gerald lives with his daughter and her lesbian lover. The lesbian lover has a posh voice and is therefore, naturally, both selfish and dim.
“Tax is evil!” she honks. “Actually,” explains Gerald’s daughter, with a look of teacherly superiority, “tax pays for the NHS, Vic.” Lil bidda politics, laze an’ gennelmen. She must have picked up Eltonese from her father.
For the most part The Wright Way is creakily old-fashioned: the parping knockabout brass of the theme tune, the jokes about women taking a long time in the bathroom, the desperate innuendo (“I’ve discovered a rogue erection!”blurts Gerald. He’s referring to a speed bump.) But Elton is at pains to show us he’s in touch with the modern world. The posh tax-hater describes a quarrel as “so a YouTube moment”. Gerald celebrates a small victory by hooting, “Stick that on your iPod and shuffle it!”
Ben Elton is the man who rescued Blackadder. For that he deserves eternal gratitude. But not The Wright Way. Formulaic, hackneyed, exhaustingly unfunny… It’s political correctness gone bad.
BBC Two gave us another lil bidda politics on Thursday in the form of The Politician’s Husband, a three-parter written by Paula Milne as a companion piece to her 1995 serial The Politician’s Wife. This one stars David Tennant as a minister who resigns to bring down the PM, only to find his plans foiled by his wife – a fellow MP.
Every politician in the show is a sleek, scheming smoothie; at least half the dialogue is conspiratorial whispers, barbed with cynical irony (“Don’t want her thinking it’s a pincer movement, do we?”). Personally I found this unrealistic, not because politicians aren’t schemers, but because they aren’t this good at it. The Thick of It is much more plausible: flocks of chancers flapping from one panic to the next, like hysterical pigeons. Most real politicians aren’t gleamingly efficient killer androids; they’re burbling oddballs. Our next Prime Minister could be Ed Miliband.
I’d also take issue with a claim one character made about Gordon Brown. Borrowing Lyndon B Johnson’s line about J Edgar Hoover, he said the reason Tony Blair never sacked Brown was that it was “safer having him inside the tent p---ing out than outside the tent p---ing in”. The reality, of course, was that rather than inside the tent p---ing out, Brown was inside the tent p---ing in. Ruined Blair’s sleeping bag. Apparently he also flung a Thermos at an aide and sold off our baked bean reserves at the bottom of the market.
Based on a short story by Ian R MacLeod, Snodgrass (Thursday, Sky Arts) was a bleakly comic play imagining how John Lennon’s life would have turned out if he’d quit The Beatles in a huff just as they were about to make it. We met him in 1991, aged 50, trudging off to begin a job as a temp stuffing envelopes.
David Quantick’s script brilliantly captured Lennon’s sneering facetiousness and smarty-pants wordplay. “All right, keep your breakfast on, your corn flakes’ll go cold.” Lennon’s was the sort of antagonistic humour that is tolerated, even celebrated, in a young millionaire rock star but is unbearable in a middle-aged failure. The Snodgrass Lennon, played by Ian Hart, quipped relentlessly, not to entertain anyone but to keep them at bay. Quips were to him what quills are to a porcupine. Mainly the quips were about what a loser everyone else was. Even at the bottom of the pile, he felt able to look down on others.
It’s conceivable that Paul McCartney would have had a happy enough life without fame and riches. Not Lennon. His type of personality meant he had to succeed, to prove himself not only great but superior. Since he was famous and made wonderful music, people put up with the snippiness.
On the soundtrack Martin Carr, from the Beatles-y 1990s band The Boo Radleys, performed pastiches that deftly imitated the dreaming melodic swirl of Lennon’s solo work. In short, Snodgrass was terrific, its one flaw that it was just 25 minutes long; a premise this promising was worth at least an hour.
Broadchurch, ITV’s popular whodunit, climaxed on Monday, but two mysteries remained. First: given that he’s Scottish, how come David Tennant’s Scottish accent is less convincing than his English one? Maybe I’m just so used to hearing him do a faultless English accent (as in The Politician’s Husband) that a Scottish one sounds put-on, even a spoof. (Yoor siss-tarrr. Yoor boy’s comput-arrr. Nigel Carrr-tarrr.) Second: why did Ellie (Olivia Colman) squash that slug? The writer has since said the slug was a “metaphor” for the killer. Bit harsh to squash it, though. Maybe she just hates metaphors. Some people can be squeamish about them. And nothing ruins a garden like an infestation of metaphors. I recommend salt. Metaphors hate salt.
Clive James is away