Last Night's Viewing: The Café, Sky1
Ralph Little’s new offering is one of those sitcoms that despises the belly laugh says Tom Sutcliffe
In fact, you're unlikely to get a punchline at all unless one of the characters tells a knowingly corny joke, and in that case the whole point is that it isn't funny. It's a distinctively modern mode this, pioneered by programmes such as The Royle Family and Craig Cash's Early Doors, and, far from shying away from banality and tedium – as most other kinds of comedy do – it embraces it affectionately, as the common grain of daily life. From the opening lines of last night's episode – an inconsequential, lopsided conversation about a binman falling over (and then getting up again unharmed) – we knew where we were and, more importantly, what was expected of us. Not hilarity or the guffaw, but fond recognition and a wry smile. By the end of the episode, we knew a bit more: that almost every encounter would begin with "Arroight?" and end with "Laters"; that there would be an undertow of melancholy and disappointment beneath the surface placidity; that the dialogue would be stitched together from clichés, not because the writers can't think of anything better, but because that's mostly how people talk.
The setting is a struggling promenade café in Weston-super-Mare, run (and almost exclusively occupied) by Carol and her daughter, Sarah. Carol's mother has a permanent spot by the door, where she contentedly destroys her knitting. Various regulars drift in and out: Chloe, a cheerfully vacuous hairdresser, Richard, a nurse in an old people's home, who once went out with Sarah and wants to do so again, and Stan, a local florist who has a bit of a thing for Carol but is currently communicating his feelings only in the language of flowers. And, to ruffle this tranquil little tide pool, there's also John, a Porsche-driving London returnee who talks about the town as "the arse end of nowhere" and stirs up the discontents of its inhabitants. Sarah dreams of making it as a writer of children's stories, Richard dreams about getting a car and Kieran, the local living statue, dreams of getting a boyfriend, but for the moment all those hopes look like forlorn ones. And I defy you to get through a conversation about it without someone using the word "warm" or "gentle".
There is a danger here, though not a huge one. The difference between a wittily observed cliché and a flatly repeated one is hazardously small, as is the distinction between calculated eventlessness and the dull kind. Sentiment can easily turn cloying too, as it did in the final minutes here. "Were you happy?" Sarah asks her nan about her long marriage. "God, no... he was a cantankerous old bugger." "Do you miss him?"she continues. "Every day, love, every day." Too neat and too sweet, I think. On the other hand, it's far better to stumble into over-kindness than into cruelty, and the second episode suggests that the slow build of affection doesn't level off. It might take a while, but these characters could become as lovable to us as they already clearly are to their creators.