The Wrong Way

Dene Kernohan asks: Is Ben Elton’s new sitcom the worst ever made?

wright way
I smell a hit.

“For me the sitcom is the holy grail of comedy writing, the toughest discipline but also the most rewarding”Ben Elton, April 2013)

The Wright Way (BBC One, Tuesdays 10.35pm) is a new Ben Elton studio sitcom about Gerald Wright, the by-the-book head of a local council Health and Safety dept. (David Haig).  Stylistically similar to The Thin Blue Line, Elton’s mid-90s ensemble series set in a police station and also featuring Haig, it aims to have some fun with today’s health and safety-conscious culture.

Gerald is that perennial of sitcom leads, a well-meaning idiot.  Separated from his wife (who left him for her personal trainer), he lives with his 20-something daughter Sue (a plumber) and her scatterbrained girlfriend Vic (played by Beattie Edmondson, daughter of Adrian and Jennifer Saunders, in her first major role).  Actually, I’ve grown to like these two, they’re kinda sweet.

Other regulars include Gerald’s work colleagues at the Basilricky council offices: Malika (The Thin Blue Line’s Mina Anwar), Luke and Toby.  Fiery-tempered Malika’s an okay character; the other two haven’t distinguished themselves so far.

I’d say it’s okay.  The acting is very OTT, especially from Haig, and maybe that should have been addressed, but some of the set pieces have been very funny.  Gerald’s battles with dishwashers, washroom taps, toilet roll dispensers and recalcitrant shop assistants are all classic sitcom fare.

There’s also a cleaner who keeps walking in on him just as he appears to be indulging in inappropriate behaviour, and a reverse order-speaking Mayor (Robert Daws).  The less said about them the better.

But does it deserve the kicking it has received from seemingly all quarters since its debut?  According to the press and Twitter, it’s “the worst sitcom ever”.  Anyone who thinks that really hasn’t paid their sitcom dues.  Have they seen Leave It to Mrs O’BrienSmall WonderThe Munsters TodayPlaza PatrolTroubles & StrifeSanford and Son..?

I presume the “written by Ben Elton” factor has a lot to do with the reaction – how dare the co-writer of The Young Ones and the beloved Blackadder serve up such rubbish?  Or more likely – “we’ve been sceptical of him for some time now, this proves what a sell-out he is”?

The Wright Way may not be a 100% success, but Elton is too skilful a writer to produce a dead loss.  To my mind it is even a slight improvement over other recent studio fare like Citizen Khan or Reggie Perrin or In with the Flynns or indeed Gold’s recent revival of Yes, Prime Minister (David Haig again).  They’re all patchy at best.

I blame poor production as much as writing for their deficiencies: the broad, shouty playing; the wall-to-wall piss weak gags nonetheless greeted with guffaws every time.  For some reason, today’s studio audience reactions are a long way from the honest, infectious laughter heard in so many classic sitcoms of the past.  It makes for a shoddy final product.  If the jokes were of the standard we’re used to in the best of the American multi-camera comedies, that would be fair enough, but they’re not.

As far as I’m aware, US shows are punched up all week, right to the point of recording, by a highly paid, highly skilled team of staffers.  And it shows.  This has never been replicated over here with any success, but judging by the raucous reaction of the studio audience to each and every utterance, someone evidently wishes us to believe it has.  ITV’s new studio sitcom Vicious is a good example – the very best of acting talent, and actually not that bad a show.  But think how marvelous it would be if the writing was on a par with The Golden Girls or Frasier.  It’s not even close.

But I still respect the makers of multi-camera comedies for their bravery in attempting such a difficult form.  There’s nowhere to hide.  Single-camera, no audience sitcoms on the other hand don’t have to try so hard to be funny.

BBC Three’s Cuckoo; Channel 4’s The Mimic; BBC Two’s Rev., etc. I gotta say, despite the acclaim, the majority of these shows don’t make me laugh too much.  However, they certainly look better than multi-camera shows, are allowed room to develop character, and aren’t plagued by the sound of 350 hyenas.  But I’m really not sure if they’re of much higher quality.

Too often, embarrassment replaces jokes: someone will say or do something wildly inappropriate (and highly unlikely), followed by a shocked reaction.  It worked in The Office, but it’s wearing a bit thin ten years on.

The decline of the Britcom since the heyday of the 1970s and 80s suggests to me that there is only a small pool of talent for the format, and the multi-channel environment has been to their detriment.  You could argue the fracturing of the audience has allowed for a broader range of subject matter.  Maybe, but fewer classics have emerged as a result.

Not to be too pessimistic.  It’s great to see the sitcom back on ITV’s agenda after such a long gap, and there have still been a number of very good ones in recent years: Outnumbered; Lead Balloon; The Inbetweeners; Him & Her; Peep Show; The Thick of It; Twenty Twelve; Miranda.

What distinguishes all of these?  They’re very funny of course, well-written and with clearly delineated characters – and their humour is rooted in truth.  That is essential to the form in my opinion.  And the concept, the characters – it should still hold your interest if you removed the jokes.  I’m not sure you can say that about too many current Britcoms.

I think it’s probably safe to say that The Wright Way won’t be recommissioned.  Like last year’s insipid David Jason vehicle The Royal Bodyguard I suspect it’ll play out the rest of the series with diminishing publicity and never be heard from again.  And that’s fair enough, because it’s not great, but I wouldn’t like it to be another nail in the coffin for the form.

My advice to commissioners would be to give the studio shows the same room to breathe as the single camera ones.  It’s difficult to be subtle when you’re shouting.

Do they have to be so overcrowded with jokes?  The strike rate is poor, and I’m not sure that’s the true strength of British comedy anyway.  Dad’s Army is almost entirely character-based – very few actual ‘jokes’ – and yet it’s one of the funniest of all the studio sitcoms.  And still pulling in a decent audience every Saturday night on BBC Two.

As for Ben Elton, he might have failed on this occasion but comedy is a difficult and divisive business and his success over many decades is undebatable.  I hope he’s not finished with sitcom, and I even secretly hope The Wright Way runs for five years, because it’s still better than Mrs. Brown’s Boys.  Just drop the cleaner and the Mayor, and stop shouting.

Dene Kernohan tweets here

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