The Best UK sitcoms of the 21st century so far…Spaced (1999-2001)

Spaced is the story of Tim and Daisy, two young people in need of somewhere to live.

Daisy is a frustrated writer, keen to escape life in a squat. Tim is a small-time cartoonist who has been forced to move out after discovering his girlfriend has been having an affair with his best friend.

Together they hatch a plan. Despite not being a couple or even friends really (they have met by chance in a café), having spied a reasonably priced flat to rent advertised as being only available to “professional couples only,” they decide to present themselves as a happily married couple to the apartment’s landlady.

This in essence is the premise of Spaced. Although as Tim himself would say, “it’s a bit more complicated than that.”

Spaced ran for two series on Channel 4 in 1999 and 2001 and proved the perfect calling card for its two writers and stars, Simon Pegg (Tim) and Jessica Stevenson (now Jessica Hynes, who plays Daisy) with the show’s unseen force, the hugely talented director, Edgar Wright also making an impact.

Straddling the millennia, technically only the second of the two series is a 21st century sitcom and thus eligible for this list. But who cares? Both series are great anyway, for a number of reasons…

Firstly, whether its Tim railing against the evils of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (a film which Peter Serafinowicz who plays his hated love rival, Duane Benzie actually features in), Daisy attempting to write her masterpiece to the theme from Murder She Wrote, or Wright skilfully evoking memories of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Spaced is packed to the brim with clever popular culture references.

Secondly, many of the episodes are masterpieces in their own right. Tim and his war-obsessed friend Mike played paintball, long before the guys on Peep Show or US shows like Big Bang Theory and Community did it. Another episode skilfully turns the TV show, Robot Wars into a real life conflict while ‘Gone’ sees the stars engaged in an ingenious mimed gun battle governed by ‘masculine telepathy’ at the end of a drunken night out. And that’s not to mention the celebrated Epiphanies episode in which Tim’s odd friend Wheels (Michael Smiley) takes the gang clubbing.

Then, there’s the brilliant supporting cast. Pegg’s real life best friend and flatmate, the then unknown Nick Frost plays Tim’s war-obsessed pal, Mike, a man once expelled from the Territorial Army for “stealing a tank and attempting to invade Paris”. Or Brian (Friday Night Dinner’s Mark Heap) an eccentric artist who has an ‘arrangement’ with landlady, Marsha (Julia Deakin). There’s also a supporting cast which includes a whole host of rising comedy stars including David Walliams, Paul Kaye, Bill Bailey and Ricky Gervais.

But finally there’s the best reason of all: Spaced is likeable, endless quotable, highly watchable and very, very funny.

The Best British sitcoms of the 21st century so far: The IT Crowd (2006-13)

Jen, Roy and Maurice make up ‘the IT Crowd,’ the IT support team located in the basement of a large London corporation. Jen (Katherine Parkinson), is the boss. Hopelessly out of her depth having bluffed her way into a job she knows nothing about, she is even unsure how to pronounce the word, ‘computers’ correctly. Roy (Chris O’Dowd), meanwhile, is nice but lazy. He tends to answer every IT enquiry with the question, “Have you tried switching it off and on again?” Finally, there’s Maurice Moss (Richard Ayoade), an intelligent geek.

As with Graham Linehan’s other sitcoms, Father Ted and Black Books, The IT Crowd’s main characters arguably adhere to a comedy formula: an inept boss who would rather be somewhere else (Ted Crilly, Bernard Black, Jen), an amiable subordinate (Dougal, Fran, Roy) and a weirdo (Father Jack, Manny, Moss). But if it is a formula, it’s pretty loose: none of these characters are really anything like each other. And it works.

The casting of Chris Morris, as company head, Denholm Reynholm generated much comment when the show started.  Why was Morris, the man behind Brass Eye attaching himself to such a mainstream vehicle? Such statements proved misplaced. Morris, although fine, was never the best thing in it. All the main cast proved their worth on their show and have flourished elsewhere since. Morris, at any rate, soon left to be replaced by Matt Berry as his son and heir, Douglas. As the lecherous, unreconstructed “sexy Hitler,” Douglas, Berry (in fact, only twelve years’ younger than Morris) delivers an almost career-defining performance.

Although patchy at first, The IT Crowd was a rare sitcom which steadily improved as it went on. Standout episodes feature Roy’s emotional game of Dungeons and Dragons, Moss’s appearance on Countdown, Roy and Moss tricking Jen into believing a box contains the entire internet and a work’s outing to see ‘Gay! A Gay Musical.’

And for the record, the title, The IT Crowd is apparently pronounced to rhyme with ‘high tea crowd’ not ‘bit crowd’. Although, frankly, it probably doesn’t really matter.

All 4, Netflix

TV review: Toast of London

Steven Toast (Matt Berry) is an actor. He is not a very good actor or, indeed, a very good person. He is arrogant, short-tempered and a womaniser. He has no real sense of humour and doesn’t even seem to fully understand what a joke is. He has odd gaps in his knowledge: for example, he has never heard of ten-pin-bowling or Benedict Cumberbatch. For these reasons and more, he sorely tries the patience of his agent, Jane Plough (rhymes with “fluff”), played by Doon Mackichan.

He is the creation of star Matt Berry and co-writer Arthur Mathews. Three series of the sitcom ran on Channel 4 between 2013 and 2015 and are now on Netflix. A fourth series is on its way.

Most episodes of Toast begin in the same way; with Toast in a studio where he reluctantly fulfils a range of voice over commitments. This is one thing the real life Berry and the fictional Toast have in common (aside from both having a surname which is also a type of foodstuff): Berry, previously a star of The IT Crowd and subsequently a regular in vampire-based TV mockumentary, What We Do In The Shadows, has a gift for projecting his voice in an unusual and comedic way. Although his voice is now very recognisable, he has been recording voice overs, both serious and funny, for years.

These studio scenes provide some of the funniest moments in the series. At one point, Toast is inexplicably required to say “YES!” over and over again into the microphone. This may not sound funny, but is: trust me, few people can infuse the word “yes” with as much fury and gutso than Matt Berry.

Toast’s other voice over assignments include recording orders for a submarine, (including the sinister, “fire the nuclear weapons” delivered in a variety of accents) and dubbing a gay porno film.

Toast’s world is peopled by many strange characters. He lives with Ed (Robert Bathurst), a retired actor, living off royalties and permanently in his dressing gown. Toast’s brother Blair Toast (Adrian Lukis) meanwhile, is extremely reactionary and has a military background. He always refers to Toast as “Toast” rather than “Steven,” even though he is called “Toast” himself.

Then there is Toast’s nemesis, Ray Purchase (Harry Peacock), also an actor who wears a white suit, in contrast to Toast, who always wears black. The two despise each other, no doubt in part, because Toast is openly sleeping with Purchase’s wife, always referred to as “Mrs. Purchase” (Tracy–Ann Oberman).

The cast is excellent. Berry’s House of Fools’ co-star Morgana Robinson appears at different times in three different roles and Vic and Bob make appearances. There are also an impressive range of cameos. Amanda Donohoe plays Toast’s faithless ex-wife while Brian Blessed, Timothy West, Jude Law, Jon Hamm, Peter Davison and Michael Ball all make appearances.

The series is not quite set in the real world: even the people sitting in the background in Toast’s pub are dressed bizarrely and the deaths of Bob Monkhouse and Francis Bacon, as well as the fact, the Globe Theatre burnt down in the 17th century, are deliberately ignored.

Personally, I could have done with fewer musical interludes from Berry. Although I enjoyed the theme tune (which he composed) and the version of Ghost Town by the Specials which he performs in one episode (now sadly removed), too many of his songs are too melancholy in tone for what is essentially a zany comedy series.

But this is essentially a class act from one of the leading British comedy acts to emerge this century. More please! Encore!

Thirty years of A Very British Coup

Written during the gloomy days of the early Thatcher era, Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup has since inspired two Channel 4 dramas series: a 1988 series adapted by Alan Plater and the current  The Secret State starring Gabriel Byrne..

The second of these has so far has shown only a slight resemblance to Chris Mullin’s novel. But thirty years after it was first published, A Very British Coup remains one of the finest political novels ever written.

The story is set in what was then the future: the year 1989. The General Election has ended with an amazing shock result: the Labour Party led by former Sheffield steelworker Harry Perkins has been swept to power in an unexpected popular landslide. The result is a clear mandate for a truly radical agenda which proposes “consideration to be given” to withdrawal from NATO, an end to the nuclear deterrent and to UK membership  of the then Common Market, abolition of the House of Lords, an end to public schools and much more.

Little wonder the establishment react with alarm. The story of A Very British Coup is essentially of how the security services (with US help), the media and civil service all conspire to thwart the new government’s agenda and ultimately subvert democracy.

Some might scoff at the premise. 1989 after all, turned out to be the high watermark of Thatcherism in reality. And how likely is it that the Tories and SDP would form an alliance or that Labour would beat them with a manifesto which makes Labour’s real “longest suicide note in history” from 1983 look mild in comparison?

In fact, it’s not so far-fetched. Since 2010, we have been living under something very close to a Tory-SDP “Government of National Unity”. Labour also won an unexpected landslide on a very socialist agenda in the “khaki” election of 1945 and again, won unexpectedly (though much more narrowly) on a hard left manifesto in 1974.

There are also similarities between Harry Perkins and Harold Wilson, another Yorkshire-born Labour Prime Minister who resigned very unexpectedly in 1976. Even their names are similar. Wilson often talked of MI5 plots against him and it is easy to dismiss his talk now as an early manifestation of the Alzheimer’s disease which would blight his old age.

Except… it has since emerged: elements of MI5 were genuinely actively plotting against Wilson. Maybe not at the very top of the service, but some more eccentric right-wing agents apparently genuinely believed Wilson was a KGB agent who had assassinated his predecessor as Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell who died in 1963. In reality, this conspiracy theory is unlikely as Wilson was not even favourite to succeed Gaitskell at the time of the latter’s death, George Brown was. There is talk at the end of the novel of a book being written which would tell the true story of “what happened to the government of Harry Perkins. There must, however, be some doubt as to whether it will ever be published.”

Such talk should only go so far though. The book is a novel. Chris Mullin, later a Labour MP and now an acclaimed political diarist would not actually have expected events to turn out exactly as he wrote them, any more than George Orwell would have expected the horrors of his vision of 1984 to be fully realised. Harry Perkins is not Harold Wilson: he is far more left-wing than Wilson ever was. Mullin’s vision of the pernicious effects of Thatcherism in the Eighties is highly prescient. He may not have anticipated the peaceful end of the Cold War (virtually nobody did in 1981) but nor did he predict a Labour election landslide for Michael Foot or a limited nuclear war started by President Ted Kennedy as Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta which also appeared in 1982 did.

Perhaps more by coincidence, Mullin did foresee a Labour Foreign Secretary being revealed to have had an extramarital affair soon after a landslide election win. This is exactly what happened to the late Robin Cook in 1997 although he didn’t resign and the affair thankfully ended more happily than it does for the fictional Tom Newsome. On the other hand, Mullin was somewhat off in predicting the age of King Charles III and Queen Diana would have begun by 1989.

My copy of A Very British Coup features the quote “A delicious fantasy” by The Observer on the cover. I’m not so sure. It’s certainly delicious but it clearly isn’t entirely rooted in fantasy. Remember, the first ever Labour Government was brought down at least in part by the faked “Zinoviev Letter” distributed by MI5 in 1924. Think about how ungracious the response to Obama’s re-election has been amongst some on the US Right (such as Donald Trump). Or how the UK establishment might react to an unexpected Ed Miliband win in 2015.

Consider finally, this real life quote by the noted right-winger Peregrine Worsthorne in the Daily Telegraph from 1979 with which Mullin begins the novel: “When treason can be right”, it explains: “I could easily imagine myself being tempted into a treasonable disposition under a Labour government dominated by the Marxist left . . . Suppose, in these circumstances, one were approached by the CIA who sought to enlist one’s help in seeking to ‘destabilise’ this far-left government. Would it necessarily be right to refuse co-operation?”

No wonder A Very British Coup also features a villain called Peregrine.