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Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Episodes, BBC2

There’s a lovely exchange in this superb new comedy as husband and wife BAFTA Award-winning writers, Sean (Stephen Mangan) and Beverly (Tamsin Greig), debate whether to adapt Lyman’s Boys for an American audience after meeting brash executive Merc Lapidus (John Pankow).


The enthusiastic Sean is trying to convince the more circumspect Beverly. He says, “We’d never have to work again!” There’s a silence before Bev replies, “What would we do instead?”

This encapsulates the dilemma of artists and performers the world over – whether to follow the money for the luxury it provides or the fulfilment of artistic integrity – which is the central theme explored. Loosely speaking, the two leads are the opposite desires, which are followed from moment the first cracks appear in the previous determination to make brilliant TV shows without the risk of dilution through the compromise demanded by the American market.

Sean persuades Beverly to follow his dream of working in Hollywood. As the episode progresses his bravado is slowly eroded by a series of unexpected events as one after another promises made to them are broken.
 
Their luxury house turns out to be the fag end of a lease from a reality TV show (explaining the fake Greek columns Sean keeps bumping into), while in a meeting it becomes clear none of the Americans producing the show has actually watched a single episode, their excitement generated by the “success” and “awards” rather than the quality of the writing, effectively casting Sean and Beverly as redundant figureheads in the creative process to be chewed up and spat out as if they were dog-eared first script drafts.


It culminates in a painful scene where Julian Bullard (Richard Griffiths) has to audition before Merc and his cronies for the lead role he had in the successful British version of the show. Julian plays the scene marvellously opposite Andy, one of Merc’s lapdogs. In the audience, Sean and Beverly laugh in tandem with Merc’s cronies, who in turn echo Merc’s own ostensibly authentic mirth.

After the audition is over, Sean and Beverly assume he’s got the role until Merc makes a few minor, apparently innocuous observations on the way Julian played the role. His views are deliciously compounded by the ripple of disapproval that races across the faces of his stooges until he insists – but insists by way of blithe suggestion – that Julian redo the audition playing it as an American. After asking Julian to come back, Sean says to the small audience, only half-jokingly, “You all remember Julian Bullard?” But he blows the audition, and walks out halfway through.
 
The whole script is wonderfully embroidered with such moments of witty pathos, and is beautifully played by the whole cast, among who Tamsin Greig is especially exquisite, sometimes hardly breathing the lines to convey her despair at the butchery of the original show.
 
The one small flaw is that, despite being a ‘behind-the-scenes’ comedy nothing in it surprised us. Admittedly much of the humour was derived by matching expectations rather than confounding them, but this sort of show has been done enough now that the synthetic whitewashed offices decked out in cream furniture and the glue-on smiles of the insipid executives border on the cliché.
 
Thankfully, the indelible humour and wonderful cast relegate these familiarities into extraneous background details that hardly dim the uncompromised brilliance.

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