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Saturday, 28 December 2013

Matt on the Box: Christmas Comedy Special - Still Open All Hours, Gangsta Granny, Not Going Out, Bluestone 42, Man Down, Trollied, Vicious and Mrs Brown's Boys

So much has happened in the last four days that I've had to split my TV review pieces into two separate articles with this first post covering the funnier aspects of the Christmas week. Though I have to preface this piece by saying that not all of what I saw made me laugh.

First up the comedy that provided the biggest surprise when it was first announced Still Open All Hours. It's been almost thirty years since the shutters last went up at Arkwright's Corner Shop, but it seems that little has changed. While Arkwright has gone up to the big grocery store in the sky, his nephew Granville (David Jason) is still running the shop the same way his uncle once did. Granville's young companion in the shop is his son Leroy (James Baxter), the result of a one night stand in Blackpool twenty five years ago. Left on the shop's doorstep, Leroy was part raised by all of the women in the community who are now more interested in his well-being than that of Granville's. Granville is now training Leroy up to be his delivery boy while both are still questioning whether or not they are father or son. Meanwhile, Granville bemoans the lack of his own love life and is now seen flirting with the dithering Mavis (Maggie Ollerenshaw). To me the main problem with Still Open All Hours was that little attempt was made to modernise the show for a 21st century audience. Whilst there's nothing wrong with having a traditional sitcom like this on the TV, it did feel that Roy Clarke used the majority of an old script that he had lying around and just changed the names to suit the new characters. Even the contemporary character of Leroy feels dated with the jokes about him wearing sunglasses indoors feeling incredibly clich├ęd. Though I understand why Still Open All Hours needed a nostalgic touch, I think Clarke would've been best hiring a younger co-writer who would've helped update the show so it didn't feel like it was stuck in the past. Indeed if the show was to receive a new series, and judging from the ratings then that's a real possibility I would hope that a new writer would be brought on board to assist Clarke. While nostalgia may work for a one-off special, I feel a full series of episodes such as this one wouldn't work and would instead be a massive flop. But I for one would leave things as they were and have Still Open All Hours simply be a one-off special rather than a pilot for a whole new run which would probably tarnish the legacy of one of our country's best sitcoms.

More fun was to be had on Boxing Day courtesy of Gangsta Granny, an adaptation of the book by David Walliams, whose Mr Stink was one of the surprise hits of last year's festive season. To me Gangsta Granny was no different as the plot once again concerned a young protagonist who simply didn't fit in with the rest of their family. Ben (Reece Buttery) was incredibly enthused by plumbing while his parents (Miranda Hart and Walliams) were obsessed with ballroom dancing. Every Friday, Ben is packed off to the house of his Granny (Julia McKenzie) where he has to endure endless games of scrabble and helpings of cabbage stew. One day Ben comes across a boxful of jewels and soon discovers that his seemingly boring granny was once an international jewel thief. Together the pair plan one last job as they attempt to steal The Crown Jewels while at the same time evading the suspicion of Granny's nosy neighbour Mr Parker (Rob Brydon). Of all of the programmes that have been on during the festive season, Gangsta Granny is the only one that I can envision the entire family settling down to watch together. Incredibly funny in places, especially when focusing on Ben's parents, at its heart Gangsta Granny was a simple story about the bond between a boy and his grandmother. The abiding message of Gangsta Granny was that youngsters shouldn't see their grandparents as boring because, just like them, they were also young once. Gangsta Granny also benefited from a number of great performances most notably from young Reece Buttery as the incredibly expressive Ben and by McKenzie who was terrific as the pensioner with a massive secret. The costumes added an extra element of comedy to proceedings while Matt Lipsey's direction was superb. By the time Gangsta Granny had come to an end I had laughed, cried and finished up with a big smile on my face and that's all I really ask for from a programme such as this.

While not provoking as many differing emotions as Gangsta Granny, Not Going Out did provide the requisite amount of laughter to justify its place on the Christmas schedules. In fact I would go as far as to say that Lee Mack's comedy is currently the best mainstream sitcom airing on any terrestrial channel. This Christmas Special saw Mack's Lee take Lucy (Sally Breton) and Daisy (Katy Wix) to his late aunt's country abode. Initially looking like a ramshackle house, the place is soon decorated to look like the perfect destination to spend Christmas. Soon Lucy's parents (Geoffrey Whitehead and Deborah Grant) turn up to generally bemoan all of Lee's failings and Daisy's general lack of intellect. The group are soon spooked by the fact they're not on their own and feel that the house they're in could be haunted. But the ghostly noises and crashes in the dark are soon revealed to be caused by Lee's layabout father Frank (Bobby Ball). However, Frank attempts to scare them further by telling them the story of a boy who died at the house years before. The stage is then set for a number of comic set pieces as well as plenty of Mack's legendary one-liners. By now I think you know exactly what to expect from Not Going Out and if you don't like the kind of wisecracking humour employed by Mack and company then it's probably best to skip the show. While I concede that its loss some of its charm since the departure of Tim Vince, Not Going Out still delivers laughs on a consistent basis. Unlike some other sitcoms that are joke-heavy, Not Going Out features three likeable lead performers all of whom are great at delivering their lines at a suitable pace. I personally felt that Not Going Out was perfectly placed on the schedules, late on Christmas Eve, so people could enjoy it while tucking into the first drinks of the festive season. Ultimately I laughed all of the way through Not Going Out and sometimes that's all you need from a Christmas Comedy Special.

Thankfully though, some other sitcoms provided a lot more than just a few old-fashioned laughs. One of the best new sitcoms of the twelve months, BBC3's Bluestone 42, presented a sometimes bleak festive instalment. Part of the problem with a comedy focusing on a bomb disposal squad in Afghanistan is sometimes life will more than imitate art. So, after the tragic death of a British soldier in Afghanistan, Bluestone 42 had to be postponed and eventually aired on Boxing Day. The plot of the Christmas Special sees the arrival of the new number two of Captain Nick Medhurst (Oliver Chris) who he is tasked with bringing into line as soon as possible. Unfortunately for the team Gordon House (Matthew Lewis), quickly nicknamed 'Towerblock', is a Northern soldier who has a massive chip on his shoulder. He takes against Nick's bravado and feels that his views are constantly getting overlooked by those of his posher senior officer. The feud between the two climaxes at the predictably tasteless Nativity play where House sets off a rocket leading to a firefight between the troops and Afghan soldiers. The fight results in the destruction of the troop's mess house along with all the provisions to make their annual Christmas dinner. Luckily, by the end of the episode, Towerblock has learnt to get along with the rest of the troop and it seems that his presence will continue to be a source of amusement throughout the upcoming second series. Despite its seemingly controversial nature, Bluestone 42 has its roots in traditional sitcoms such as Dad's Army and It Ain't Half Hot Mum. While the class warfare between Nick and Towerblock was the primary story of the episode there was a lot of comedy courtesy of foul-mouthed Scottish duo Mac and Rocket (Jamie Quinn and Scott Hoatsan). The combination of social commentary and big belly laughs makes Bluestone 42 a real treat and, judging from this Christmas Special, it's a sitcom that will definitely improve with age.

Another debut sitcom that was awarded a Christmas Special is Channel 4's Man Down. Having not been a fan of the series I approached Man Down with trepidation and mainly watched it as I couldn't find the remote control after Alan Carr had finished. The plot of the episode saw the show's woeful hero Dan (Greg Davies) attempt to impress his headteacher Emma (Jeany Spark) by staging the school's annual Christmas show. As fans of the show have seen, Dan is an atrocious teacher who gives out the same drama lesson over and over again so there's no surprise that his Christmas Play has a similar theme. Initially confident that his class will be comfortable acting in Scrooge 3000, he soon panics when he discovers the show is a musical. Enlisting the help of the school's music teacher Mr Field-Williams (Brian Murphy), Scrooge 3000 looks like it will be a success but on the morning of the first production the kids are less than ready. Things go from bad to worse when Dan's ditzy friend Jo (Roisin Conaty) gives recovering alcoholic Field-Williams a box of liqueur chocolates. Soon Dan is chasing all over the place attempting to find the music teacher in time for his opening night while at the same time attempting to outwit the attacks by his crazy father (Rik Mayall). Man Down can best be described as a surreal sitcom which gets laughs from the absurd situations its characters find themselves in. Davies is perfectly cast as the hapless hero while Mayall provides incredibly absurd support as he revels in dressing up in a number of costumes to surprise his son. Best of all though is Mike Wozniak as Dan's only sensible friend Brian and gets to deliver a brilliant speech about this year's must-have toys for kids. I have to say Man Down was the biggest surprise of the Christmas season as I was expecting not to laugh at all while watching. It may well have been I'd had too much to eat and drink at this point but I still found Man Down to be a comically surreal slice of festive fun.

One sitcom that really didn't surprise me at all was Sky One's Trollied which delivered its second annual Christmas Special. The episode really concentrated on the relationship between store manager Gavin (Jason Watkins) and Julie (Jane Horrocks) as the latter was offered the opportunity of managing her own store. Initially turning the job down, Julie finally revealed her true feelings to Gavin who spurned her once and for all. The resulting fallout saw Julie leave her job and journey on to the Widness branch of Valco never to return again. Whilst the Gavin and Julie story was definitely there to appeal to long time fans of the show, I've always felt Trollied is at its best when focusing on the funnier supporting characters. For example foul-mouthed Colin (Carl Rice) led a band of the male store-workers against a group of young cub scouts who had attacked them several times. Equally funny was when the hopeless Neville (Dominic Coleman) ended up doing the Christmas shopping for his ex-wife's new husband and later put a bet on it being a white Christmas. The latter half of the episode, which saw the employees being snowed in, showcased the strength of the programme namely the focus on a group of disparate characters who formed a very strong family unit. After a dodgy third series, which saw the show loose some of its big name cast members, it was refreshing to see the show back to its best. Though I wasn't a fan of the story that focused on security guard Ian (Victor McGuire) badgering the store's Santa, the majority of the plots were strong. I have to say I laughed all the way through and found the material between Gavin and Julie to be rather touching. Whether the show can survive without Jane Horrocks remains to be seen, but I did feel she got a fitting and respectful send-off in this rather good Christmas Special.

After heaping a large amount of praise on most of the comedies that I've written about I'm going to end with two comedies that left me unamused. The first, unsurprisingly, is Vicious the sitcom that was universally panned when it debuted in spring of this year. Nothing much has changed as far as the tone of the comedy is concerned with the order of the day being catty comments dished out between long-time couple Freddie and Stuart (Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi). This Christmas episode saw the pair host dinner at their flat for their friends including dopey Penelope (Marcia Warren) and flirty Violet (Frances de la Tour). As the couple are notoriously lazy, they convince their young neighbour Ash (Iwan Rheon) to cook the entire meal for them. Predictably things go wrong as Ash comically trips over on more than one occasion ruining the Christmas dinner and upsetting the couples' dog in the process. Meanwhile, getting agitated that they aren't getting their dinner on time, Freddie and Stuart begin to bicker and eventually a big revelation from the past jeopardises everything. Having sworn off Vicious following the first episode, I decided to give this Christmas episode a go, mainly as there was nothing else on. Unfortunately I felt there was nothing of merit in this festive special and I didn't laugh once during the half hour run time. The problem was that instead of suggestive dialogue, the script goes too far and spells out every joke to the point that it's not funny anymore. Despite containing a quartet of experienced performers, Vicious is just a car crash from start to finish and I'm just shocked that there are people still defending the programme. It's just beyond me that Vicious got a second series as I'm sure that we'll get just the same amount of old-fashioned jibe and suggestive humour than we did in this Christmas episode.

But while Vicious may have been horrendous, at least only three million people made the choice to watch it. The same can't be said for the woeful Mrs Brown's Boys which somehow garnered the biggest average audience on Christmas Day. My only explanation is that, after the festive Eastenders, the nation as a whole fell asleep and left their televisions on as I can't see anybody finding Brendan O'Carroll's drag act in the least bit amusing. I feel that O'Carroll's biggest audience must be the elderly who still find gags about mechanically-operated Christmas trees funny. Indeed the big comic set pieces in this year's festive special involved Mrs Brown getting a new tree that she could operate using a remote control which she inevitably got stuck on by the end of the episode. The other running joke was that Mrs Brown got ultra-competitive when playing Christmas games and was incredibly aggrieved when her rival Hilary (Susie Blake) guessed 'Silence of the Limbs' to a charade clue. Just like with the obvious humour in Vicious, Mrs Brown's Boys takes all the suggestion out of the character by having her swear every thirty seconds. I feel the vulgarity in Mrs Brown's Boys is often uneccessary and only exists to get cheap laughs from the sitcom's easily-pleased audience. Now I'm not someone who's opposed to old-fashioned comedy, as you can see from my review of Not Going Out, but I like it to be at least a little bit funny. Again, just like Vicious, I didn't laugh once while watching Mrs Brown's Boys and I just can't see why almost nine and half million of you tuned in to watch this atrociously awful so-called comedy.

Agree with my views on this year's Christmas comedy? Let me know on Twitter @mattstvbites

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