Naff is fine… so long as it’s funny

The Wright Way and Vicious: two old-fashioned sitcoms featuring big names but very small laughs.

David Bowden

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We are, I am told, in the midst of generational civil war, with the baby-boomers and Generation X-ers apparently declaring all-out war on the youth of today and tomorrow through their greedy self-interested politics. If this is the case, then British TV hasn’t just been seeing the debut of two new ropey sitcoms these past few weeks: if the reviews are to be believed, the greying-haired graspers may well have reached for their nuclear option. I suppose, as we prepare for the long atomic winter, we should at least give Mary Whitehouse her prophetic due: hellfire really was brought upon by a couple of old gays and Ben Elton. You can’t say we weren’t warned.

It is fair to say that Elton’s most recent sitcom, The Wright Way, will not go down as much of a classic of the genre. Before the first episode had even ended, it had already been listed on Wikipedia as ‘anti-comedy’; every episode is greeted with a joyous Twitterstorm of snarking. Critics aren’t so much sharpening their knives as reaching for the gilded dagger they keep on top of the fireplace ready for such eventualities: this is a comedy about ‘elf’n’safety madness which has somehow even been panned by the Daily Mail.

Much of the anger is directed at Elton himself, of course: the one-time pseudo-radical comedian who’s now held by fellow pseudo-radicals for crimes including making lots of cash, entertaining a mass audience and working with Andrew Lloyd Webber. With The Wright Way rather unfortunately timed to hit our screens in the weeks following the passing of his one-time arch-nemesis Margaret Thatcher, the high millionaire New Labour supporter is the perfect lightning-rod for just about every contemporary disgruntlement with contemporary Britain.

The Wright Way is definitely poor and lazy stuff, essentially a patchwork of sketches from older and more successful sitcoms from Elton’s Nineties heyday, even featuring several cast members repeating broadly similar characters from Elton’s own The Thin Blue Line. The jokes are laboured, the set-ups hackneyed and even the cast look bored when they don’t have any lines to say. That Elton – always a serious student of popular light entertainment – is reduced to recycling old gags from his last genuine popular hit (it’s worth remembering that he’s not even the lyricist on smash Queen musical We Will Rock You) is a symbol that his is a long-exhausted creative talent.

Nonetheless, while undoubtedly a flop, there is no denying the whiff of snobbery behind the opprobrium The Wright Way is attracting: essentially it is an attempt to capture the kind of conservative traditional family comedy such as My Family (which was watched and loved by millions but none of them critics) rather than, say, the understated Rev or the satirical bite of The Thick of It or Peep Show. If anything, The Wright Way is damned far more in comparison to the success of similarly retro shows such as Not Going Out or the sensationally crude (yet fun) theatrics of Mrs Brown’s Boys.

Causing equal consternation is ITV’s own Vicious, which has been causing confusion amongst critics for featuring something Good and Important (a traditional sitcom with two gay lead characters) while also committing the cardinal sin of being tackily old-fashioned (it’s a traditional sitcom). Looked at in isolation, Vicious is actually a truly astonishing sitcom, given that it features three genuine stage icons (Sir Ian McKellen, Sir Derek Jacobi and Frances de la Tour) and is co-created by Mark Ravenhill, the fringe playwright notorious for such hard-hitting works as Shopping and Fucking.

Vicious has divided opinion as to whether its portrayal of two quintessentially camp old queens locked in an eternal bitchfest with each other is socially important progressive move for television or a dangerously socially regressive move for television. In reality, the truth is neither – society has long since moved on way too far in its attitude to sexuality for an ITV sitcom to have any serious role in shaping it. In terms of approach, Vicious deserves as much scorn as The Wright Way for being tired and hackneyed, with only its more outrageous sense of humour packing any kind of superior punch. Stylistically, however, it’s a dazzling curate’s egg, with its theatrical pedigree topped off by the sense that its plot has been ripped from another former provocateur, Joe Orton. Rather like Nineties sitcom Gimme Gimme Gimme, its very thrill seems to exist in how appallingly tacky it is and, rather like that show, you feel that it is destined to be remembered as kitsch oddity than mainstream hit.

Yet while the twin dinosaurs of The Wright Way and Vicious continue to slug it out in a race to the bottom, we must remember the much sadder fate of its younger generation, typified by fellow ITV sitcom The Job Lot. The latter does everything right in terms of being a modern comedy, dispensing with a laugh track and taking an offbeat and mildly surreal take on life in a jobcentre. It’s a masterpiece of tasteful pleasantness, which does nothing to really stand out in your mind. It has so far avoided the scorn heaped upon The Wright Way, and will never stand accused of setting back a minority, but then perhaps it faces the saddest fate of all for comedy: simply fading away into the background.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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