The Weekend Australian - Review - - Tv -

IN­TER­NA­TIONAL tele­vi­sion drama is min­ing a rare vein of gold. The rea­sons are many and var­ied. Un­for­tu­nately, the same can­not be said for TV com­edy. Here, it’s Chris Lil­ley and panel shows on the ABC and low- cost ex­per­i­men­ta­tion on Ten.

In the US, broad — and I mean broad — come­dies such as Two and Half Men don’t break any bar­ri­ers. Even one of that coun­try’s bet­ter sit­coms, 30 Rock, is con­ven­tional by most stan­dards.

As in pre­vi­ous times, Bri­tish TV re­mains com­edy’s beach­head. In­deed, Bri­tish com­edy is en­joy­ing a boom, thanks largely to the ad­vent of nu­mer­ous dig­i­tal chan­nels.

Much of the com­edy at­ten­tion in that coun­try has rested largely, and with good cause, on The Of­fice and Ex­tras ’ Ricky Ger­vais, Lit­tle Bri­tain ’ s Matt Lu­cas and David Wal­liams and Da Ali G Show’s Sacha Baron Co­hen. Yet one doesn’t have to look too broadly across the Bri­tish TV spec­trum to find oth­ers who are pro­duc­ing top- notch TV com­edy, among them Chris Mor­ris, Paul Whitehouse, Peter Kay, Cather­ine Tate, Mitchell and Webb, and Rob Bry­don.

Steve Coogan, though, is the best — and least known — of the lot.

Coogan can be seen on the screen, briefly, as the har­ried di­rec­tor in Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thun­der, and will prob­a­bly be­come best known for such Hol­ly­wood roles ( in­clud­ing in Night at the Mu­seum), even though his best per­for­mances are in art- house films such as Jim Jar­musch’s Cof­fee and Cigarettes and Michael Win­ter­bot­tom’s A Cock and Bull Story. His TV com­edy is hard to top, though. His lat­est se­ries, Sax­on­dale, is avail­able lo­cally on DVD this week; his first sketch se­ries, Coogan’s Run, is also avail­able, al­though, in­cred­i­bly, his master­works, Know­ing Me, Know­ing You and I’mAlan Par­tridge, are not avail­able lo­cally.

Those se­ries, about a hap­haz­ard, de­luded talk show host, were co- writ­ten by Coogan, Ar­mando Ian­nucci and Pa­trick Mar­ber, and pre­saged the un­com­fort­able com­edy used so well by Ger­vais, Baron Co­hen, Wal­liams and Lu­cas. It also pre­ceded Mar­ber’s ter­rific work as a play­wright ( in­clud­ing Closer ).

But it also painted Coogan into a cor­ner, as he notes with a hint of anger in the au­dio com­men­tary to Sax­on­dale. The se­ries about a 1970s roadie who is con­signed to a life of bit­ter me­di­ocrity and anger man­age­ment as a sub­ur­ban pest con­troller is a beauty, if not quite Alan Par­tridge.

‘‘ It’s funny and slightly deep, that was the idea,’’ Coogan says in the com­men­tary.

‘‘ You have to in­vest in it but peo­ple were slightly en­cum­bered by what I’d done be­fore. What they should do is put those to one side and con­cen­trate for a minute, if you can be both­ered, and it will re­ward you.’’

It is a re­veal­ing mo­ment dur­ing some ter­rific com­men­taries for the first se­ries of Sax­on­dale. Pro­ducer Ted Dowd can’t help but wind Coogan up by adding: ‘‘ Be­cause didn’t you do Alan Par­tridge? Be­cause that was great.’’

The Tommy Sax­on­dale char­ac­ter is just short of great, if you can look past his hideous face and hair. And the com­men­taries are en­light­en­ing as we hear Coogan ex­plain the think­ing be­hind the baby boomer char­ac­ter.

‘‘ I wanted to do some­thing that was smart and had some warmth and hu­man­ity about it, some love: and love is a very un­cool word in com­edy,’’ Coogan says.

Not right now, though. An­other charm­ing BBC com­edy, Gavin & Stacey, is rightly at­tract­ing plau­dits over­seas; and the love in Sax­on­dale be­tween Tommy and his girl Magz ( Ruth Jones, who also stars in Gavin & Stacey ) works.

While Coogan’s char­ac­ter is a de­light­ful mix of old- school nos­tal­gia, me­lan­choly and acer­bic wit, his co- stars also de­liver won­der­ful per­for­mances. Ev­ery scene with Mor­wenna Banks and Ras­mus Hardiker is cap­ti­vat­ing and dis­tin­guishes the se­ries.

Sax­on­dale is not your nor­mal sit­com; that’s pre­cisely why it’s so good.

■ bodeym@ theaus­tralian. com. au

Best of Bri­tish: Steve Coogan

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