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Saturday, 12 January 2008

Lead Balloon, BBC4/BBC2

Did we like it?
A wry, acerbic diatribe about how miserable life is for a gloomy, middle-aged man with a chip on his shoulder and a sense of charity that would shame King Herod.

What was good about it?
• Jack Dee is hardly stretched playing a sneering, pessimistic comic Rick Spleen, but he adds layers to the superficial gloss of his stage act. The miserliness of Fagin burrows its way believably into the plot like a wasp pupae sucking out the nutrients of a paralysed caterpillar, before spreading its wings into the so-far hilarious denouements.
• Raquel Cassidy is an excellent foil and a well-written role in her own right as Rick’s partner Mel. Forever mirroring the audience’s exasperation with Rick’s penny-pinching through a roll of her eyes or a barbed riposte; it’s perhaps the attrition of living with Rick that has made her the most cynical character in the comedy.
• The artfully crafted scripts that start from points of little promise – in the opener it was Rick and Mel being invited to a christening, Rick doing an advert for recycling that “made him look like a prick”, and exquisitely neurotic café owner Michael foisting one of his homemade cakes on Rick – and are then skilfully woven together, ultimately conspiring to humiliate Rick or leave him out-of-pocket.
• The scariest derision (we think that’s the collective noun for shopkeepers, if it isn’t it should be) of shopkeepers this side of Royston Vasey. Rick’s nosing around a shop selling christening presents was disturbed by the disturbing Maureen (Miranda Hart) who would oscillate spasmodically between matronly empathy and banshee-like hysteria. As she tried to flog a £140 teddy bear to Rick, he claimed that “they sometimes have spikes in them.” To which she shot back. “Well, no. It was made in Austria.”
• Meanwhile, the electrical goods shopkeeper and paper shop worker in the second episode could have crawled from the pages of Franz Kafka.
• Magda, Rick and Mel’s home help, plays the role of the straight-talking stooge whose naivety or bluntness is often as the root of Rick’s problems. It was she, for instance, who threw Michael’s treasured cake in the dustbin.
• Rick’s daughter Sam (Antonia Campbell-Hughes) and her boyfriend Ben (Rasmus Hardiker). It’s worth noting that Rasmus Hardiker appears to be turning into the new Nicholas Lyndhurst; both are painfully thin and very talented actors and seem(ed) to vacuum up all the roles as hopeless maladjusted teenagers. It’s only hoped that Hardiker doesn’t get unjustly typecast, though.
• Rick’s enduring efforts to spend as little as possible such as ruining the christening present by trying to engrave the baby’s name on it himself rather than pay the extra £20 or going to extraordinary lengths to repair the broken toaster rather than buy a new one. But is frequently duped by Ben into giving him money. “I didn’t know that Ben smoked dope!” exclaimed a dismayed Mel to a sheepish Rick. “I wonder where he gets the money.”
• Rick setting his alarm clock obscenely early in the morning just to see if the paper boy would have woken him up after he had a word with his boss; spying through the curtains as Wayne lumbered along the street.

What was bad about it?
• The argument and quips provoked by Rick’s junk mail lacked the sharpness of the rest of the script.
• The frequent decamping to the café, which is fine as we get to see more of Michael, but seems like a rancid organ donation from Seinfeld.

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