Following on from my previous blog on sitcoms, and with particular attention to the issue I am constantly returning to – the emergence and growing primacy of the half-hour dramatic comedy form – two more recent examples are currently lighting up Monday and Tuesday nights on BBC1 and 2 with some of the darkest comedy we have yet seen. I say “dramatic comedy” because I think that is probably the best descriptor for the genre. The BBC announcer recently described one of the two new titles as “comedy-drama”, but that is not a particularly new idea – it is a term which has previously been applied mainly to programmes with a dramatic form and comedic elements, such as Cold Feet (ITV). The newer developments are essentially comedy forms (sitcom) with serious subjects and narrative progression. “Form” here is mainly a question of length – with hour-long or 50-minute episodes being associated with things that are primarily drama, and half-hour/25 minutes for comedy. But in the age of binging and streaming that doesn’t (or shouldn’t) really matter anymore; series creators can now set out to make half-hour episodes without foregrounding either the drama or comedy elements. The only time the genre descriptor matters is when it comes to awards, which are important for recognition: some great acting performances either get lost or are submitted for comedy awards (such as Leslie Manville in Mum), while some shows, like Inside No9, seem to get overlooked because they fall between so many stools.
So, to the two new shows I want to consider. As well as both being on the dark side and both being made immediately available in full on the BBC i-player, they have a number of other things in common. Both have been created and co-written by somebody previously known only for their acting, most recently in sitcoms. Both feature fine ensemble casts of quietly desperate characters. Both are set in fading English seaside towns.
Toby Jones’ Don’t Forget the Driver (BBC2, Tuesdays) seems at times like an attempt at a “state of the nation” comedy (particularly in the context of Brexit), but in its quieter, more character-driven moments, is reminiscent of Detectorists, on which Jones, previously better known for his dramatic roles, cut his sitcom teeth. Jones’ main character, Pete, is a similar ineffectual but decent everyman and, again, is living with a daughter from a failed marriage. He works as a coach driver in Bognor Regis, a town I am very familiar with from childhood holidays and one which, probably because of its “funny” name and association with the phrase “bugger Bognor”, referenced here, has often featured in sitcoms – it was the Steptoes’ regular holiday destination. I say “main” character, because Jones also plays Pete’s twin brother Barry, who has emigrated to Australia and is seen via skype, but returns to Bognor as the series progresses. While the taciturn Pete carries most of the bleak plotlines, Jones indulges himself in some knockabout comedy, too, through the character of Barry.
The dark elements are foregrounded from the opening scene, when Pete finds the dead body of a would-be immigrant washed up on Bognor beach (in a Bergmanesque dream sequence later on, he turns the body over to find it has his face). The immigration issue takes centre stage when Pete unwittingly brings Rita, an Eritrean girl, back from a trip to France, hidden in his coach, then rescues and hides her from the people traffickers who are waiting to pick her up. But, yes, this is a comedy.
The cast of characters and the situations they are placed in do seem to have been created to represent facets of contemporary Britain and sometimes the “little England” symbolism gets a bit heavy-handed, quite literally so in the episode in which Pete takes a group to visit a model village. However, the direction, by the excellent Tim Kirkby, is very subtle and the way the narrative is often advanced wordlessly is impressive. The fact that Rita’s story is happily resolved in the final episode and the main characters return to their ongoing lives, including Pete and Barry’s mother Joy (Marcia Warren) battling with dementia, daughter Kayla (Erin Kellyman) attempting to leave home and rejoin her mother in Birmingham and roadside burger-bar owner Fran (Claire Rushbrook) trying to get Pete’s affection, indicates that we will probably be set for a second season, which would be very welcome.
If Toby Jones had been taking notes and gaining inspiration during the making of Detectorists, then Daisy Haggard must have spent most of her time on Episodes, during which she was given faces to pull rather than lines to learn, actually creating Back to Life (BBC1, Mondays), which she has co-written with Laura Solon. This is an even darker piece, in which Haggard plays Miri, released from prison after serving 18 years for a brutal murder and resuming her life with her parents in their middle-class home in Hythe, on the Kent coast. So far, so Rectify, except there is no doubt about Miri’s guilt, though there are some mysterious mitigating circumstances about the murder which emerge slowly as the series progresses (and I haven’t watched it all yet, so there may be revelations to come). And, yes, this too is a comedy, though a highly dramatic one and packed with a fine cast – Geraldine James particularly outstanding as Miri’s wayward mother and Adeel Akhtar as Miri’s neighbour, trying to cope with caring for an unstable and foul-tongued aunt.
Haggard plays Miri as a relatively “normal” and well-adjusted person, trying to reconnect with life, get a job and survive the hostility she receives. There is little indication (at least not yet) of any psychological effects on her of her crime or of her years in prison. Indeed, it is the characters who surround her who seem the most damaged and in need of help, which she is happy to provide. The series is very well written and performed and provides constant moments of shock and surprise, but not that many laughs, though when the laugh lines do appear, they certainly hit home.
The half-hour form has provided most of the best TV of the year so far, and we still have the final season of Mum to come. Back to Life took over Fleabag’s slot and, while it can’t quite compare to that masterpiece, it certainly hasn’t failed to make an impact. Of the two series I have discussed here, it is the one most likely to make my shortlist for the year’s best, though I will wait until I have seen it all to decide. In the meantime, I am expecting this year’s “dramatic improvement” to arrive imminently. Sky Atlantic’s Chernobyl has made a very strong start and there are new series from Russell T. Davies and Shane Meadows looming on the near horizon. Happy days.