Lily Savage creator Paul O’Grady is steadily transforming himself from Britain’s best drag act (by far) to all-round actor/entertainer, but if he was looking for a vehicle then perhaps he shouldn’t have chosen one that took him straight to sitcom hell.
Eyes Down has all the subtlety and originality of a brick, and an obvious, derivative brick at that. The bingo club setting is pure Peter Kay, and the humour pure “aren’t Northerners daft/strange/unhygienic?”, but with none of the real Phoenix Nights bite. The characters include a watered-down Victoria Wood-alike café manageress (complete with Wood-alike hairstyle), a Janet from Two Pints Of Lager-alike (played, impressively enough, by the real Janet, Sheridan Smith), and Gaz from Two Pints as well, reborn as Bobby with a different actor. There are also some old ladies who smell of wee (of course), a timid-in-love mummy’s boy with a funny haircut, and a decrepit old cleaner (the ever-great Edna Doré) who talks endlessly about her sex life and medical problems, like a watered-down Victoria Wood’s mum in Dinnerladies.
O’Grady’s Ray is the club manager in charge of this lot, and he plays the part with a sour resignation that may not be entirely fictional. The script is a relentless barrage of one-liners, most of them obvious but some, nevertheless, quite funny. However a stand-up act delivered by seven people isn’t the same thing as a sitcom, and the jokes’ impact is dulled by the two-dimensional context (not to mention a canned laughter track tellingly cranked up to 15).
Episode one contained the regulation attempt at non-PC boundary-challenging, in the shape of a disabled adultress with a midget husband (cue “Paraplegics have feelings, you know”, “She hasn’t, not in her legs, anyway”). However even they were spoilt by a clichéd mistaken-identity plot which saw O’Grady punched at eye-level (i.e. in the nuts) by mini-hubby as he innocently tried to unjam her wheelchair.
Writer Angela Clarke probably thought that getting Paul O’Grady for her first sitcom was a huge advantage. In fact it’s the opposite; this should have gone out quietly on BBC3 as a first-attempt show, but instead O’Grady’s status propelled it straight to terrestrial primetime, where it simply doesn’t belong. As it is, it represents a strong cast and expensive production, both wasted on second-rate material.