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The joke's on us with RTE's latest comedy

THERE was one gigantic joke in the first episode of RTE2's new sitcom The Centre on Monday night. Unfortunately, it was at our expense. Literally. It was the bit after the closing credits when the words "Funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland with the Television Licence Fee" flashed up on screen.

Not funny? Certainly not to you, me or most of the other saps who fork out €160 every year to help pay for a national television service that regularly treats us with blithe indifference – when, that is, it's not treating us with something closer to outright contempt.

But, I imagine there are plenty of people who are laughing.

People such as Warren Meyler and Marion Cullen, who co-write The Centre and act as executive producers.

Katherine Lynch is entitled to a self-satisfied chuckle too. Not only is she Meyler's creative and business partner – their company, WAKA TV, co-produces The Centre – but she also gets another chance to wheel out her tried, tested and, for some of us, very trying and extremely testing character Bernie Walsh, the singing Traveller.

As for the members of the BAI, those men and women (you'll find the full list on the BAI's website) charged with the delicate task of deciding which independent producers get a slice of the cake baked by the licence payers . . . well, who knows if they're laughing?

Who knows if they even watch television? On the evidence of The Centre, they can't be watching a lot of sitcoms, or else they'd have kept our money in their pockets.

ATROCIOUS

Let's cut to the chase: The Centre is atrocious, although that hardly qualifies as a surprise. RTE has done, and continues to do, many things brilliantly, but comedy is rarely one of them.

Barring exceptions like Bachelors Walk, Trivia, The Savage Eye, the sadly short-lived show Your Bad Self and Hardy Bucks – which, for all its around-the-edges roughness, was funny and incisive about life in small-town rural Ireland – the history of RTE comedy is a litany of catastrophic failures.

I'm talking quality here, by the way, not viewing figures.

The Centre is right down there with the most grievously awful. Set in a rundown estate in west Dublin (the favoured location of middle-class Irish television types when they attempt satire), it's framed as a mockumentary, but is too sloppily made to sustain the illusion.

The mockumentaries that work best – Community, Parks and Recreation, The Office, Modern Family, Twenty Twelve, RTE's own Paths to Freedom – are the ones where everyone plays it straight. The characters may be idiots but they know they're idiots.

In The Centre, every character is a cartoon, every performance pitched at the screeching, over-the-top volume of a parish hall Christmas panto. As a viewer, it's embarrassing to watch. It must be just as embarrassing for a capable actor like Gary Cooke, who plays a pre-op transsexual called Nuala with all the subtly of a sledgehammer squashing a kitten.

But being an actor in a country of this size is a high-wire career choice with no safety net, so you can't blame people for grabbing whatever gig comes along. You can blame Meyler and Cullen, though, for a script that plunders hitherto unknown depths of puerility.

There are endless references to mickeys, diddies, holes and geebags. At one point, a character played by one of The Nualas describes a garibaldi biscuit as tasting like "a baked sanitary pad".

It's adolescent playground humour without the humour. Jennifer Maguire is in there too, hidden under a burka, which is arguably the best place to keep her. Morgan Jones turns up as a local politician.

Did the man learn nothing from his involvement in Extra! Extra! Read All About It!? Obviously not. And neither did the members of the BAI.


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