Low-ambition comedy for a low-ambition event

New sitcom Twenty Twelve gently mocks London’s preparations rather than taking a satire-shaped cudgel to them.

David Bowden

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It’s almost a year to the day since I began my stint as spiked’s TV columnist with a look at Doctor Who, taking over from a chap infamous for his fascination with the Second World War and the Third Reich, and whose predecessor – spiked’s seminal TV columnist – was called Cummings. So nothing should have allowed me to synergise like a HR guru better than to write about new Doctor Matt Smith’s sexy romp through the gay Nazis of Thirties Berlin in Christopher Isherwood’s Christopher and His Kind: it could have been the definitive TV column to bring together the many themes of spiked’s 10 years, TV-wise. Sadly, due to the bête noire of the digital-age TV columnist – thieving bastards physically stealing your internet – it was not to be.

Fortunately, the expected balls-up of planned celebrations is the theme of new BBC4 sitcom Twenty Twelve which is now two episodes in. From the pen of John Morton, who produced the much-missed People Like Us, it follows very much in the vein of The Office and The Thick Of It as it captures the organising committee’s attempts to pull together the 2012 Games. All of which comes laden with the crème de la crème of British comedy.

Twenty Twelve is something of a curate’s egg. It’s not quite a satire since the acceptance that the London Olympics will be a cock-up is so ubiquitous it even gets a mention from Michael Sheen’s character in the recent season of excellent US comedy 30 Rock. It also lacks the bite of its more successful antecedents in skewering the grotesque banality of office life or the cynical pomposity of contemporary politics. But unlike Radio 4’s smug and self-loathingly snarky What Went Wrong With The Olympics, it has a sharper eye for the potential failings of hosting the Games than simply assuming that Britain is just shit at everything. Instead, it takes as its charming premise the thought that the public actually want to see a successful sporting extravaganza, but that they may be let down by the palpable lack of interest at the highest levels in the Olympics itself as a sporting event.

The series centres on amiable buffoon du jour Hugh Bonneville who, as the ‘head of deliverance’, is battling to satisfy the various competing bureaucratic interests in the dysfunctional but swishly decorated institutions of the British civil service. From inept athletes charged with inspiring Britain’s kids in sport with motivational buzzwords and health agendas, through to meddling sustainability supremos who can’t understand the public’s lack of enthusiasm for zero-carbon living and over-interest in the actual sport, there’s insight to the portrayal of the 2012 bureaucracy. But it’s warm-bath comedy: a gentle place to reflect on the failings of the world, but lacking the fire or ice to motivate you to do anything about it. If anything reflects the mood of coalition Britain it is probably this, which will perhaps do for a midweek sitcom, but highlights the depressing admission that the ambition of London 2012 is to simply deliver a passable event, rather than Beijing’s glorious shebang.

That said, warm-bath comedy is preferable to ‘up against the wall’ comedy, which is where the makers of the university-set Campus will end up when the glorious day comes. It’s a shame because they also made the magnificent Green Wing – which also means that they should know better. Unlike a hospital, which is a universal and serious place ripe for an injection of overblown surrealism, universities are elitist spaces made surreal through frivolous ideas and ripe for an injection of serious thinking. As such, Campus aims for a no-man’s land of comedy, aimed at an audience who didn’t go to university and made by people who went and didn’t learn very much.

So we have reheated stereotypes of neurotic university accountants, boozy and sleazy English lecturers, geekily endearing female maths tutors and a David Brent-esque monster of a vice-chancellor. Those things are probably true (apart from vice-chancellors, who generally resemble Eichmann), but sticking a few bells and ribbons on the cliches won’t make them funny. Given the hollowing out of the university system and the ensuing student protest movement there is perhaps room for a bit of laughter in the dark about academic life, but sadly this is the kind of mirthless comedy which makes you all the more aware of the blinding absence of light.

It’s almost certainly too soon to call time on the innovative reinvention of the sitcom, as some have predicted following the surprising breakaway success of trad shows such as Miranda, and the deeply worrying call from BBC1 controller Danny Cohen for more working-class comedy a few months ago (Mrs Brown’s Boys anyone?). The cream of US comedy, after all, manages to create great comedy out of such niche topics as successful TV shows, struggling writers and failed sports stars. British comedy has, of course, recently thrown up such treats as The Trip and Rev. But this week’s batch of programmes are a good reminder that the best comedy comes from taking more risks, rather than treading water.

David Bowden is spiked‘s TV columnist.

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