Thursday 17 October 2019

John Boland on TV: Feeble comedy and true horror mark the viewing week


Old jokes: Coogan and Fielding in This Time with Alan Partridge
Old jokes: Coogan and Fielding in This Time with Alan Partridge

John Boland

Whenever I'm idly channel surfing and happen upon an episode of Father Ted, I invariably end up watching it. It's that good, and that timeless, too.

The same goes when I chance upon two other Graham Linehan sitcoms - The IT Crowd, starring Chris O'Dowd, and Black Books, starring co-creator Dylan Moran - and I seldom pass up the opportunity to guffaw at reruns of Fawlty Towers, despite gags that wouldn't get past today's consensus on what's acceptable.

Yet I can't bring myself to rewatch The Royle Family, a sitcom I thought unmissably innovative and hilarious in the 1990s but now carries the aura of something that seems irredeemably dated, though I don't quite know why.

So where does that leave Alan Partridge, whose idiotically inept and inappropriate talk show host was so funny when Knowing Me, Knowing You first aired in 1994 and whose 1997 first series of I'm Alan Partridge, set in a Norwich travel hotel, was even more inspired. I could still happily rewatch any episode of the latter, though its second season was much broader and less amusing.

And now, more than two decades later, creator and star Steve Coogan has brought his squirm-inducing character back to life in This Time with Alan Partridge (BBC1), the set-up here being that the BBC is unwisely giving Alan a late-career chance to redeem himself by allowing him to co-host a magazine programme that's clearly modelled on its own long-running The One Show.

Alan is now dimly aware that times have changed and that attitudes he once nonchalantly espoused are no longer acceptable, but he still can't control either his demons or his ineptitude - introducing a guest as Alice Clunt, only to be informed that her name is Alice Fluck.

That joke was used decades ago about Diana Dors, whose real surname was Diana Fluck, and its recycling here signalled from the outset that there would be little startlingly new about the revived Alan. And so it proved in a first episode that provoked few outright laughs.

Susannah Fielding was excellent as co-host Jenny, managing to maintain a rictus grin throughout all of Alan's gaffes, but the level of invention was low and the viewer was left wondering if this marvellous comic creation shouldn't have been left to our memories and to reruns.

Still, it was a masterpiece compared with the other new BBC1 sitcom, Warren, which preceded it half-an-hour earlier. It starred Martin Clunes as a grouchy middle-aged driving instructor and he was just as resistible here as he had been in the awful Men Behaving Badly nearly three decades ago.

This was One Foot in the Grave territory, though without Richard Wilson or Annette Crosbie or the inspired set-ups or great gags that distinguished David Renwick's classic 1990s series. Instead it was truly dire.

And what's to be said about Soft Border Patrol (BBC2), except that it's a BBC Northern Ireland attempt at a comedy about Brexit, which tells you everything you need to know. Oh, give my head peace, as that other BBC NI comedy dud would have it.

From feeble comedy to true horror. Her Name is Clodagh (RTÉ1) was the title of a Claire Byrne Live special in which the presenter interviewed the mother and sister of Clodagh Hawe, who was slaughtered, along with her three sons, by husband Alan in their Cavan home in August 2016.

This was very hard to watch and was clearly an ordeal for both Mary Coll and daughter Jacqueline as they told the ghastly details of what happened - or as much as they knew, given that the gardaí have inexplicably withheld from them its file on the case, which might explain to them the circumstances that led to this unspeakable act of family annihilation.

Claire Byrne was a sensitive interviewer, though the viewer never learned whether she or her team had contacted the school where Hawe taught and where he was supposed to have accessed online pornography that looked likely to ruin his career and his reputation.

And so, in a monstrous act of demented egotism, he murdered those closest to him.

"He had the illusion," Mary said, "that they couldn't manage without him. That's how important he thought he was. He felt that he was judge, jury and executioner".

In concentrating on Clodagh and her boys, the programme was a necessary corrective to media reports at the time, many of which focused instead on their killer as a family man and pillar of the community who had done an inexplicable, if terrible, thing - thus consigning his victims to secondary status.

Mary and Jacqueline's eloquence put these matters right, though probably only a public inquiry will give them the answers they deserve.

In the third instalment of Dermot Bannon's Incredible Homes (RTÉ1), Ireland's only architect was in Sweden, where apparently it can be very cold and gets dark very early. But that didn't stop him climbing into a hot tub and renewing contact with his "inner child". The experience was "bliss", the snowy countryside was "achingly beautiful", and as for the designer house nestling halfway up a tree: "Oh my God! Wow!"

Meanwhile in the second episode of Home of the Year (RTÉ1), judge Deirdre Whelan thought a redbrick terrace house in Dublin was both "fabulous" and "fantastic", while a cottage in Co Down was "overwhelming".

Now You See Me (RTÉ1) is a strange title for a four-part series about cycling. Given its bias, it could more accurately have been called Motorists Are Bad, Cyclists Are Great.

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