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Monday, 16 May 2011

Psychoville, BBC2

The first question that needs to be asked about Psychoville is: does it even have the most gossamer threads of a plot? To which the answer is a defiant ‘no’; and it’s probably a good thing, too.


Psychoville proved in its first splendid run that it uses plotlines as a loose sling in which to support its gallery of grotesques. Last series, a sinister message of ‘I know what you did’ enabled the cast to painstakingly converge on a deserted hospital, Ravenhill. Sure they were tenuously linked – many had been former patients – but it didn’t really serve as anything more than a very loose framework.

And the second series has started off in much the same manner, with, if anything, even less of a coherent plot. Finney, a fake copper, is hunting down the former patients who survived the explosion at Ravenhill, and bumping them off one by one. And even this isn’t really ‘plot’, it’s simply the most appropriate way to make room for new characters. Sadly, we’ve already seen the (apparent) demise of Joy (Dawn French), who had replaced the rag doll Freddy Fruitcake with the real-life Jennifer, who is in a comatose state after she received a blood transfusion that was, in fact, Ribena.

A similar fate was dished out to Robert, the lovelorn dwarf, as Finney proves he is a much more efficient assassin than the hapless David, aided and abetted by his cantankerous mother, Maureen, who provided one the highlights of the opening couple of episodes with her squawking rendition of Tina Turner’s Simply The Best. It was all part of a doomed plan to kill off a man they believed was responsible for sending them another, ‘I know what you did’ message. Thinking he was fatally allergic to peanuts, they invited him for a meal and tainted his pudding with peanuts. Unfortunately, peanuts don’t kill him, they act as a laxative, which was something Maureen, David and their toilet found out to their cost.

With a few of the peripheral characters out of the way, there is room for more rogues in this gallery. The best of them so far is stuffy librarian Jeremy Goode. He was introduced as he importuned a woman customer to return as soon as possible an overdue book. Initially, he seemed like a typical vicious bully, but as the increasingly incredulous woman stood up to him, the layers peeled off one after the other, exposing him as a deeply insecure middle-aged man – and all the more intriguing for this weakness. What’s more, he is haunted by an ostensible figment of his imagination in the form of Silent Singer, a ‘female’ version of Jeremy except for the knife-like teeth, who looks like a cross between an anorexic Barbie and Edward Tatsyrup from the League of Gentleman.

The other new faces aren’t as beguiling as Jeremy but show macabre promise nevertheless. Imelda Staunton brings her formidable talents to the role of Andrews, an evil woman who would like to be evil with a little bit more class. Surveying her Spartan office, she moans, “I want to feel like I’m in Minority Report not a village post office.” Meanwhile, Hattie is getting married. To the immigrant boyfriend of one of her gay pals.

Psychoville bears a great many similarities to The League of Gentleman – the series that launched creators Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith into the public consciousness (if only to give nightmares) – and while this might hint at a lack of imagination to broaden their palette, such is the quality of the writing and the originality of much of the humour, it actually exemplifies their talents that they can construct an analogous vision to one of the best comedy series of the past decade or so.

Indeed, Psychoville bears the scars of evolution from The League, in the way that the comedy is less forced through jokes and instead trickles or floods onto the screen in unexpected and ingenious ways – most memorably in the first series when fellow Leaguer Mark Gatiss guest-starred as a murder victim of David and Maureen – and while at times the pace does creep along as all the foibles of the characters are indulged, the brilliance shows no sign of being dimmed in this marvellous new series.

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