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