Friday, 9 January 2009

(Not) Scots on the box

Life of Riley, BBC 1 Network, 8pm Thursdays.

For those of you not in the know, this sitcom with Caroline Quentin was developed by BBC Scotland as part of a deal to get some of the BBC's money spent outside the M25 area. That is, to allow BBC Scotland to make a bigger contribution to those parts of the network that aren't here, at home, where we all live.

I trust that's clear enough.

As part of this current package there's another sitcom upcoming written by the Peep Show blokes so let's keep our fingers crossed. Meantime, what we've got to show for this money migration north is Life of Riley. As far as I can see there's not a lot of anything especially Scottish in the show. It appears to be set in That London, and in a move likely to endear the show to millions to Scottish viewers, one of the kids has a St.George's flag in his bedroom. Well done, the set designer!

So what's it like (living) the Life of Riley? It's not bad, it's just beige.

Life could've been written anytime in the last 30 years, it's a "classic" sitcom, not in a FawltyTowers way, more of a Terry and June way.

The perfectly fine Caroline Quentin and Neil Dudgeon play a couple of wed-agains trying to make their new, extended family of step-kids work - with predictably hilarious results! Well at least half of the last bit is true. The "jokes", first delivered on the getting to know you night on The Ark, are competently and predictably delivered to adoring laughter from the studio audience. An audience who, on this showing, must be exclusively made up of a day trip out from the Home For The Easily Amused.

There is an attempt to spice things up a bit by wheeling out the old pregnancy kit, Ohmygawdwho'suptheduff gag, but it's all very nice and a bit dull. The most objectionable and depressing thing about the show lies in the way the child actors are treated, given lines to speak that no kid in real life would ever say. In consequence, they come across as slightly creepy cut-down adults, grownups trapped in bodies too young for them. Brr.

If you want to see script design that plays to the strengths of child actors, look at Outnumbered, a sitcom grazing in the same field as Life but allowing the child actors to frame their own lines.
Consequently the kids wipe the floor with the big people in every scene. Brilliant!

Life of Riley makes My Family look like comedy gold and, and there I just walked into my own carefully dug trap. The fact is that dreck like My Family are ratings busters. They deliver audiences and in truth, there's no reason in principle why Life can't repeat the trick.
It's not comedy in my book. In my book, comedy surprises and, occasionally, shocks. Life is about as shocking and surprising as a nice cup of tea and a bit of a sit down. But so what? I don't have to watch it do I?

True, but it does make me slightly depressed that the result of all that network largesse results in BBC Scotland producing a sitcom that's just beige. I'd be the first to admit that good comedy writing, suitable for sitcom formats, is a bit thin on the Scottish ground at the moment. And while that exhausted workerist tendency exemplified by Dear Green Place seems to have thankfully played itself out there's no genre replacement emerging.

Having moaned my tits off about re-treads and re-cycling for what seems like hours can I close by completely contradicting myself? Bring back Rab C Nesbitt. Iain Pattison's resurrection of Rab over Xmas wasn't perfect by any means but it did have surprises and the occasional shock.
RAB C good, Life of Riley beige.


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