Sometimes there are unhappy coincidences in life. Like, for instance, this one: the BBC is currently running two TV shows about local government. One is American, award-winning, and quite wonderfully good. The other was written by Ben Elton's agent's accountant, on a bad day.
Parks and Recreation is a brilliant series, chock full of the ingredients that make a comedy show work. You've got a straightforward premise, excellent scripts, superb characterisation, great performances by a top-notch cast, unobtrusive but clever direction... Look, it's not always easy to praise things, because our whole pop media culture is based on decrying What's Gone Wrong. Nothing is wrong with Parks and Recreation, except that there's not enough of it. I've watched every episode at last twice. If anything can be life-affirming, this is it. Point me to the box sets, Mistress Amazon.
Then there's Ben Elton's series The Wright Way. Unlike P&R, this one is a one-man job by Mr Elton, who is listed not only as the sole scriptwriter in the opening credits, but has also likes to be known as its creator. And it's truly terrible. Here is a quick roundup of the reviews.
Seldom has a new comedy by a big name writer been given such a monumental slating. And TRW deserves it. The one think it has in common with P&R is a simple premise. Nothing else works. Under the pretence of satirising health and safety culture Elton has produced something less funny than a Daily Mail editorial and got the BBC to pay through the nose for it. And if ever there was a lazier, more cynical example of a writer ripping off the license payer, I'd be very surprised. Or, as this guy pointed out:
If something wasn’t funny once, try repeating it. An entire section of dialogue about chest waxing is replicated, beat for beat, in both episodes. A plot about Wright’s ex-wife coming over for tea somehow takes two episodes to set up (possibly this counts as a “story arc”?) A character says the title of the show. Twice.Now, Elton could never write remotely believable dialogue. But in Blackadder, you didn't need it - it was very broad comedy with historical settings, and Rowan Atkinson et al adding a bit of zing to proceedings, covered up this failing. Also, Elton was part of a team on Blackadder. On his own his writing is execrable, and it was only Atkinson's presence in The Thin Blue Line that made it bearable, if vastly inferior to the stuff Elton produced when working with greater talents. But with The Wright Way, the comedic kitten has finally freed itself from the burlap.
Elton's lack of real writing skill infects the entire production, because it's obvious nobody involved in The Wright Way cares about it much. Most of the 'stars' are stuck on one setting, being one-note, two-dimensional clichés. It would take true genius to make any of these absurd stereotypes even marginally interesting. The lighting, set dressing, canned laughter, and above all the dull direction scream Terry & June, not 21st century. And I'm sure the BBC knows it's a clunker. The release date of the DVD is 'currently unknown'.
Many writers simply lose it when they're no longer young and hungry. In Elton's case, the shift from (supposedly) angry young man to rich hack patching together a musical about Queen was quick, effortless, and cynical. So why employ him? Why not employ the young, talented people you can hear every week doing good comedy on BBC radio? Why not employ Isy Suttie? Because she's a girl? Okay, if only boys are allowed, why not employ Tom Basden, who created the excellent Party? Indeed, why isn't the team that has starred in three (3) series of Party on R4 now on the telly? You know, take a good radio show, put it on the telly... Crazy, but it might just work.
But in the meantime, the secret is out. A few years ago BBC TV comedy was rather good. Indeed, we can go down the decades and point to something good and new and interesting in each. Hancock, Steptoe, Eric & Ernie, Dad's Army, Monty Python, Likely Lads, Two Ronnies, Porridge, Dave Allen, Good Life, Fawlty Towers, Kenny Everett, Young Ones, Red Dwarf, Victoria Wood, HIGNFY, French & Saunders, Vic & Bob, Fast Show, Dinnerladies, League of Gentlemen, Little Britain, The Office, Mighty Boosh... I've probably missed a few out. Oh, yes, Reggie Perrin. And Fry and Laurie, FFS! Good grief. And Up Pompeii, was that BBC? Yes.
Now there's good stuff on the Beeb at the moment, I know, but I think the formats where you find the good stuff are looking a bit tired. Any Radio 4 (and R4 Extra) listener knows this is not because of a lack of available talent, so it must be down to a dearth of ability among those who commission BBC TV comedy. The Wright Way might be symptomatic of a panic at a high level when someone belatedly realised they had nothing home-grown of any quality. As an example of a staggeringly wrong answer to a pertinent question, it's hard to beat. Choosing a 'safe pair of hands' has here proved every bit as sensible as handing an unexploded bomb to Alf Ippititimis.
But let's leave the last word to Ms Knope:
Shauna: I'm surprised no one's complained about this.
Leslie: Oh, tons of people have. Yeah ... we get letters every day.