From Hancock to The Thick of It, British comedy hs excelled at making us laugh at the darkness lurking just below the civilised veneer of British life. Outnumbered and the brilliant Inside No.9 continue this fine (and disturbing) tradition.
|No. 9: quality black comedy with a quality cast. (Image: BBC)|
Outnumbered: a sitcom with the never-fails-to-be-funny gimmick of a bunch of endearing dysfunctional kids – moody Karen (Ramona Marquez), jovial Ben (Daniel Roche) and I’m-more-grown-up-than-you-are Jake (the unlikely named Tyger Drew-Honey) – getting the better of their equally dysfunctional parents Pete Brockman (a constantly bewildered Hugh Dennis) and Sue (Claire Skinner, seemingly always a hair’s breadth from a nervous breakdown). The random, surrealist dialogue and physical comedy that the child actors improvised when they were younger was often inspired as well as being laugh-out-loud funny, so with the kids now teenagers, I wondered if the show would still work as well. The good news is that it does, with a mature, darker slant to Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin’s writing.
The one-liner strike-rate of Outnumbered hasn’t been compromised, with a classic, witty and quotable slice of dialogue being delivered roughly every thirty seconds:
Pete: (on Jake's driving lesson): At one point I yelled ‘pedestrian!’ and he thought it was a criticism.
Sue: Ben, I’ve told you before: no gladiator nets at the dinner table.
and many more.
|The battling Brockmans (Image: BBC)|
What’s more prominent than ever is the theme of exasperation, exhaustion and paranoia regarding modern British family life. Sue tried to get her children and husband sitting at the dinner table in a bid to counteract her family becoming increasingly ‘fragmented and anti-social’, only to look up and find none of them talking to each other and all of them texting. Obsessed with Sigmund Freud, Ben made Sue question her parenting abilities and worry about the effect her own shortcomings had on her children. Over at the local swimming gala, the aggressively competitive Karen threw her medal for coming third into a bin, demanded a drugs test on the other competitors and flounced out of the relay team. Pete, meanwhile, tried to convince a worried parent and the pool security man that he wasn’t a paedophile, even though he was filming Karen’s race on his phone.
The playing by the gifted line-up of actors, adult and adolescent, is as sprightly, engaging and as hilarious as ever. It’ll be fascinating to see how they interact with Outnumbered’s new theme of regret and sadness at the state of contemporary family life, summed up as Sue sat alone at the dinner table and imagined her children giving her compliments for cooking such a nice meal – compliments she knew she was never going to get for real.
Tales of the very unexpected
Half an hour after Outnumbered, on BBC2 at 10pm, ‘masters of horrorcom’ Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, late of Psychoville – ‘Mr Jelly and His Box of Hands’ – and the genre-busting The League of Gentlemen – ‘Are you local?’ – were back with a new anthology series Inside No.9. I’d seen Mr Shearsmith on Wednesday morning’s Breakfast Time and been impressed by his comments about his new series: like me, he regretted the passing of shows like Armchair Theatre and Play for Today, where there was a different story every week, and the well-remembered Tales of the Unexpected, in which a horror story would follow a crime story would follow a comedy and so on. The pitch – different stories that took place behind a door with a 9 on it – and the finished product has clearly impressed the BBC, as a second series has already been commissioned.
|Two funny men in a very funny wardrobe.|
It’s easy to see why. The first tale, ‘Sardines’, was innovative, original, chilling and revisited Pemberton and Shearsmith's favourite landscape, where dark secrets hide behind the closed doors of an apparently serene middle England. This was quite literally the case, as approximately one third of all Britain’s character acting talent – Katherine Parkinson, Sheaarsmith and Pemberton themselves, Anne Reid, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Timothy West and Anna Chancellor, among others – were shut in a wardrobe in a game of sardines, while the consequences of jealousy, incest, repressed desire, child abuse and various dysfunctional relationships seethed around and through their characters.
‘Sardines’ was an immaculate piece of plotting, too, as the various quirks of the characters – body odour, intimacy issues, low self-esteem, bullying – gradually all connected and led up to the stunning closing scene, which more than equalled the signature final twists of Tales of the Unexpected. In short, ‘Sardines’ was a delight: deceptively simple, blackly funny, grotesque and hugely entertaining.
Although most of the money must have gone on the cast, ‘Sardines’ was notable for the innovative budget saving of filming in one room. One brilliant shot focused on the empty bedroom for nearly a minute, as characters hiding under the bed and in the wardrobe bitched at each other. Like the whole story, it was a brilliant and inspired piece of comic staging.
Inside No.9 and Outnumbered may mine the dark seam in British life, but if the comedy that results is as good as what was on offer on Wednesday night, as far as I’m concerned they can keep digging. Expect, though, to suddenly find yourself questioning just why you’re laughing...