DVD review: Inside No. 9 – Series Three

inside no 9 s3 dvd

Cert: 18. BBC Worldwide

Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, Philip Glenister, Keeley Hawes, Tamzin Outhwaite, Peter Kay

Continuing in the richly darkly comic vein of the previous two series, onetime League of Gentlemen Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith write and perform in six more one off stories, all linked by the fact that they involve the number nine.

For the 2016 Christmas special The Devil At Christmas, we join the Devonshire family (including Pemberton, plus his pregnant wife played by Jessica Raine and mother-in-law Rula Lenska) as they embark on an alpine holiday in 1970s Austria. Ingeniously, the episode is presented in the form of a 1970s film apparently being accompanied by a DVD audio commentary supplied by the production’s director (voiced by Derek Jacobi). There’s thus more than a shade of Acorn Antiques or perhaps Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace as continuity errors within the slightly shoddily made film within the film abound. But this not detract from an undeniably dark undercurrent. As local guide Klaus (Shearsmith) tells of the legend of Krampus (a sort of demonic anti-Santa), it becomes apparent something very sinister is going on both within the film but also behind the scenes. Ironically, this episode also comes with its own audio commentary on this actual DVD.

The second episode, The Bill deals with a perhaps more familiar setting as a group of businessmen including two played by Philip Glenister and Jason Watkins, meet for dinner. Matters escalate dramatically and alarmingly during negotiations over payment of the bill at the end of the night.

Series Two’s third episode The 12 Days of Christine starring Sheridan Smith was the standout episode and the same may well be true of The Riddle of the Sphinx in Series Three. Both terrifically clever and ultimately quite horrific, the story sees Pemberton playing a legendary puzzle compiler known as “the Sphinx” tutoring a wayward student (Alexandra Roach) who has broken into his quarters in the ways of the cryptic crossword. Like most such crosswords, nothing is quite what it first appears to be.

Empty Orchestra is, of course, as cryptic crossword fans will know, the literal meaning of the Japanese word karaoke. Set at a somewhat turbulent office party situated in a karaoke bar, the increasingly acrimonious mood amongst the work mates, all under threat of redundancy, is cleverly matched by the selection of songs.

To say the penultimate episode of the series Diddle Diddle Dumpling dealing with a husband (Shearsmith’s) obsession with a stray number nine shoe which he has found, is the weakest of these six episodes is no insult. The standard is very high.

Finally, Private View set in a sinister art exhibition features the distinguished likes of Morgana Robinson and Felicity Kendall, plus a bizarre cameo from Peter Kay. It combines horror and comedy just as brilliantly as Series Two’s finale Séance Time did and satisfactorily brings to an end another superb series.

 

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DVD review: Upstart Crow

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You could feel the shockwaves reverberating around the British comedy world for days afterwards: Ben Elton had written a good sitcom.

It should not have been a shock, of course. Elton co-wrote two of the best British sitcoms of all time, The Young Ones and Blackadder, indeed, the three best series of Blackadder. The ghost of Blackadder II hangs over Upstart Crow which also has an Elizabethan setting. It is not as good as Blackadder II (few things are) but it’s a noble attempt.

David Mitchell plays William Shakespeare, a man torn between the demands of his rather lowbrow Stratford household and that of London and his pursuit of a career as a playwright and a poet. At home, he has a loving wife Anne (Liza Tarbuck), a permanently grumpy teenage daughter (the excellent Helen Monks of Raised By Wolves in an underwritten part) and his elderly parents (Harry Enfield and Paula Wilcox). Much to his frustration, all of Shakespeare’s family react to his work rather as many modern schoolchildren would. His father openly admits to finding his son’s plays dull while the others tire of his fondness for clever wordplay.

“It’s what I do!” Mitchell’s Bard defends himself, in what almost becomes a catchphrase. “If you do your research, my stuff is actually really funny.”

Upstart Crow - Generics

Programme Name: Upstart Crow – TX: n/a – Episode: Upstart Crow – Generics (No. n/a) – Picture Shows: Greene (MARK HEAP) – (C) BBC – Photographer: Colin Hutton

His London life, meanwhile, involves Kate (Gemma Whelan) who longs to act  (a profession not then open to women), his manservant Bottom (Rob Rouse, a cleverer, cleaner version of Baldrick) and Marlowe (Tim Downie, excellent), Shakespeare’s doomed contemporary, here played an arrogant but charming womaniser (“a clever girl is an ugly girl, ” is his advice to Kate). There are elements of Blackadder in all of this: Kate has similarities to “Bob,” a reference later made explicit. Marlowe is also reminiscent of the late Rik Mayall’s Lord Flashman and some of the scenarios and jokes involving potatoes and dungeons are reminiscent of the earlier series deliberately or not. Future sitcom scholars may also wish to compare the openings to episode 2 of this to the start of Blackadder II’s final episode Chains.

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Upstart Crow goes wrong when it goes down the predictable route of showing how Shakespeare  finds inspiration for his plays in real life. This isn’t a bad idea in itself but it rarely works here. Other quibbles? The always brilliant Mark Heap (Spaced, Friday Night Dinner) although impressive is never given much chance to be funny as Shakespeare’s rival Greene and the scenes involving the rehearsal of the actual plays are less good, the exception being Spencer Jones’ spot on piss take of Ricky Gervais.

Twelve years ago, the idea of Ben Elton taking the piss out of then post-Office comedy supremo Gervais would have been unthinkable but his stock has fallen and Elton’s has risen since then. Upstart Crow is far from flawless but it provides David Mitchell with his best sitcom role since Peep Show, contains some laugh out loud funny one liners and marks a definite return to form for Ben Elton, one of Britain’s most unfairly maligned comedic talents.

p03vbsb4Released: BBC Worldwide. Out: now. Starring: David Mitchell, Liza Tarbuck, Gemma Whelan, Rob Rouse, Harry Enfield, Paula Wilcox, Tim Downie, Helen Monks, Mark Heap

DVD review: Alan Partridge Mid Morning Matters Series 2

3D_MMM S2_2EDVD0859_CMYK.jpgBBC Worldwide

Bonus features: Outtakes

155 minutes

Starring: Steve Coogan, Tim Key, Reece Shearsmith, Julian Barratt,  Rosie Cavaliero, Phil Cornwell, Monica Dolan, Katherine Jakeways

Hurrah for Alan Partridge!

A full quarter century after his first appearance as a nasal East Anglian sports commentator on Radio 4’s On The Hour, the socially maladroit, Daily Mail reading North Norfolk disc jockey returns in his second series of Mid Morning Matters. Although it has been five years since Alan last appeared in this format – his book, I, Partridge and generally successful big screen outing Alpha Papa coming in between – little has changed for Alan in the ensuing period, despite occasional visits from his girlfriend Angela (Monica Dolan, introduced in the film).

Otherwise, Alan is his usual barely tolerable self regardless of whether he is getting drunk and tucking into a “beef sponge” during an on air book group feature, subjecting his captive audience to his own dramatised version of the lives of William and Kate, revealing his darkest fantasies about TV presenter Julia Bradbury or simply tormenting the hapless “Sidekick Simon” (Tim Key), this is often awkward but always enjoyable.

Alan remains a great comedy creation, often sympathetic (unexpectedly bringing out the softer side of a loathsome opinion former played by Reece Shearsmith) but just as often sickeningly egotistical, politically incorrect and tyrannical, this format (which never sees Alan leaving the radio studio) works well.

Lovely stuff. Roll on Series 3…

 

 

 

DVD/Blu-ray review: Peter Kay’s Car Share

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DVD/Blu-ray review: Peter Kay’s Car Share

BBC Worldwide

Out now

Starring: Peter Kay, Sian Gibson

The year 2015 was, amongst other things, the year it became okay to like Peter Kay again. This was partly down to his recent winning turn as Danny Baker’s cockney father in the Seventies-set Cradle To Grave. But it was also undoubtedly achieved through this, his first ever BBC 1 sitcom, performed with his own accent and the less well known but no less excellent actress Sian Gibson.

Gibson (actually a long term Kay collaborator, appearing as one of Paddy’s conquests in Phoenix Nights) plays Kayleigh, a supermarket sales rep thrown together with assistant manager John (Kay) by the company’s car share scheme. The premise of each episode is simplicity itself. John drives them both to work in the first half, and then drives them home in the second. And everything occurs against the nostalgic sounds of the 80s and 90s provided by the authentically amateurish soundtrack of Forever FM (surely a more sophisticated version of Phoenix Nights’ Chorley FM?) billowing perpetually through the car radio.

Both John and Kayleigh are single and approaching the forty mark, yet otherwise seem like opposites. John relishes order and claims to like being on his own, after a series of bad break ups. Although pleasant, he is easily riled by pedantic issues such as adults using the lollypop man to cross. Kayleigh, in contrast, often seems to live in a state of chaos, insulting John on their first meeting by wrongly thinking him gay and by accidentally spilling a urine sample over him. A later episode where she goes to work drunk seems a little overdone and she is occasionally a bit too squeaky. But this odd couple work together brilliantly: this is ultimately Peter and Sian’s Car Share, not just Peter Kay’s.

But there is little to fault here. Even the occasional fantasy sequences, notably a Bedknobs and Broomsticks style underwater imaging set to the tune of Hanson’s MMMBop (which occurs when Kayleigh has a panic attack in a car wash) work even though they feel like they shouldn’t. These are marvellous comic creations (Kayleigh doesn’t believe dinosaurs ever existed and thinks doggIng is something different to what it actually is).

Belter. Roll on Series 2.

 

 

 

DVD review: W1A Series 1 and 2

W1A DVD

The problem with peopling a comedy series with annoying characters is that the series as a whole can end up being annoying rather than funny. This is a bit of an issue for W1A, John Morton’s follow up to his own Twenty Twelve. That dealt with the farcical goings on at the fictional Olympic Deliverance Commission in the run-up to the 2012 London Games. This follows the onetime Head of Deliverance Ian Fletcher (Bonneville) as he grapples with the frustrations and inertia of life at the BBC where he has been appointed to the meaningless position of Head of Values.

Fletcher is not especially annoying himself and along with Head of Inclusivity Lucy Freeman (Sosanya) is probably the closest thing we have to a hero or at least a sympathetic character in the whole thing. Fletcher is joined by the most memorable character from Twenty Twelve, the vacuous SIobhan Sharpe (Hynes, in her best role since Daisy in Spaced). A strong cast of supporting cast notably Rufus Jones, as a camp dim witted ideas man and Hugh Skinner as a hopeless intern.

Numerous problems confront the hapless Fletcher in these seven half hour (plus one hour special) episodes. A Spotlight South West presenter complains about a perceived anti-Cornish bias at the Corporation towards her, though she does not actually come from the county herself. A row emerges when details of his salary are leaked and chaos ensues after it is revealed Newsnight presenter Evan Davies is to appear in Strictly Come Dancing. The show wears its celebrity cameos lightly and does not rely on them for humour.

John Morton was behind the earlier “mockumentary” People Like Us (which starred the now disgraced Chris Langham) and as on that there are moments of genius in the show’s deliberately inane voiceover, here delivered by David Tennant as in Twenty Twelve (“Sting has called up Alan Yentob personally and called him an actual prick”). There is much to commend here. Another brilliant touch is that the show’s offices have all been named after comedy giants of the past. Hence “inside Frankie Howerd” there is a huge backdrop featuring the face of the Up Pompeii! star.

It is admirable that the BBC has produced something that is so critical of itself. However, in general, too many of the characters either speak in catchphrases (“I’m not being funny but…”) or obstructive cliches (responding to a question with an unhelpful “brilliant” rather than answering it) that it is sometimes as frustrating as the media world it predicts.

Otherwise and I’m not being funny or anything but it’s all good.

Release date: May 18th 2015

Certificate: 15

Cast: Hugh Bonneville, Jessica Hynes, Rufus Jones, Sarah Parish, Nina Sosanya, Jason Watkins, Hugh Skinner, Ophelia Lovibond

BBC Worldwide

Programme Name: W1A 2 - TX: n/a - Episode: Generic (No. n/a) - Picture Shows:  Jack Patterson (JONATHAN BAILEY), Will Humphries (HUGH SKINNER), Izzy Gould (OPHELIA LOVIBOND), Lucy Freeman (NINA SOSANYA), Ian Fletcher (HUGH BONNEVILLE), Siobhan Sharpe (JESSICA HYNES), Neil Reid (DAVID WESTHEAD), David Wilkes (RUFUS JONES), Anna Rampton (SARAH PARISH), Simon Harwood (JASON WATKINS), Tracey Pritchard (MONICA DOLAN) - (C) BBC - Photographer: Jack Barnes

DVD review: Inside No 9 Series 2

Inside cover

The premise behind Inside No. 9 is so thin that it barely amounts to a premise at all. Every story occurs inside a different “No.9” usually a house number although sometimes something else, for example, as in the first of this series, a railway carriage. That’s it. But from this, writers and performers Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith have found the perfect vehicle for their brilliantly judged macabre humour.

Anyone who has ever fancied travelling on a sleeper carriage may well be put off the idea forever by “La Couchette”. This first episode sees Shearsmith’s doctor increasingly disturbed by first, a flatulent drunk (Pemberton), then a noisy middle aged couple before finally a pair of randy young backpackers (Jack Whitehall and Jessica Gunning) discover something which changes the nature of the journey for everyone.

The 12 Days of Christine starring Sheridan Smith is a more sober but hugely effective piece. As we see Christine’s life pass before her rapidly before our eyes  from  the night of her first meeting her future husband, through to marriage, motherhood and then divorce, an element of horror seems to be threatening to creep in. But the end when it comes, packs a huge emotional punch.

The Trial of Elizabeth Gadge is much funnier, sending up the real life insanity of the 17th century witch trials. Having taken minor performing roles in The 12 Days of Christine, Shearsmith and Pemberton return to the fore in this, the most League of Gentleman-esque episode with veteran actor David Warner (The Exorcist/Time Bandits/Tron) also taking a role.

None of the episodes are weak although the quality perhaps decline very slightly with Cold Comfort set in the offices of a busy phone helpline and Nana’s Party which suffers slightly from barely any normal characters in it at all. Yet even these contain moments of excellence.

The series finale Séance Time (broadcast on BBC 2 just last night) is brilliant, however. With some vaguely insightful behind the scenes featurettes for each episode, this is ultimately a superb series of comic anthologies. Let us hope there will be more.

Release date: May 4th 2015

Bonus features: Behind the Scenes Featurettes on Each Episode

Certificate: 15

Cast: Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton, Jack Whitehall, Sheridan Smith, Claire Skinner, Julie Hesmondhalgh, Alison Steadman, Jane Horrocks, David Warner

BBC Worldwide