Rob Gilroy

Rob Gilroy: Making A Stand #55

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So, the BBC has brought back the Comedy Playhouse. Do we even need it? Answer: Yes. Yes we do.*

*My editor has informed me that this does not fulfil my column quota, so I will now elaborate…

I think bringing back the Playhouse format is a great idea. While I wasn’t around the first time they introduced it – I wasn’t even a spring embryo, never mind a fully-fledged chick – I think it’s an important breeding ground for comedy. In the same way that an untidy kitchen is a breeding ground for bacteria and Barry Scott.

For those who aren’t aware of the playhouse format; it is a series of unconnected comic programmes, giving a variety of talent in front of, and behind, the camera the chance to showcase what they can do. It’s the Take Me Out of the scripted comedy genre.

However, nowadays it is seen as some sort of police line-up of sitcom pilots, in which the fake ones are picked off and forgotten, while the real nonces are pointed out and put on display.

And who can argue with the selection process that brought us Steptoe and Son, Are You Being Served, Open All Hours and Porridge? It’s certainly survival of the funniest.

The other day I sat and watched the first episode of the new Playhouse run; Over to Bill, mainly because if I stand it puts an incredible amount of pressure on my knee cartilage.

Without getting into a slanging match, I have to admit that I was a little disappointed with it. A great cast – Hugh Dennis, Tracy Ann-Oberman (Marion, to any aficionados) and Neil Morrissey who, despite what you may think about his B&B swinging tendencies, was one of the biggest sitcom stars in the 90s.

Yet, even with this talent and Red Dwarf’s Doug Naylor putting the letters on the page, it somehow felt very flat. As though all the life and funniness had been drained out of it, like a Capri Sun.

Now, far be it for me to pour scorn on something; I know it’s not like the team sat down and though – ‘Right, what’s the blandest thing we can come up with?’

There are a many number of complications and changes that can affect how funny a finished product is. The more cooks that add to the broth, the more likely it is to end up tasting just like thick gravy.

However, for a series as illustrious as Comedy Playhouse, you think the talent would struggle to contain their ambitions.

I don’t mean setting sitcoms inside the stomach lining of a dachshund, or needing so much CGI that even George Lucas would say ‘I think that’s a tad much’, but surely story wise.

Steptoe and Son worked so well because it was such a strong idea – a father and son trapped together, living in a dump.

If the recent, and brilliant Inside No. 9 can find new and exciting stories to tell across single half hour instalments, then why can’t the Playhouse posse?

And that’s where I think the problem is – it’s not the Comedy Playhouse. Not really. To be honest; this series feels like a collection of pilots that they’ve branded ‘Comedy Playhouse’ purely to give it some sense of occasion.

Three episodes is hardly a fitting comeback for an illustrious institution. That shows a complete lack of respect to the format that was so brilliantly utilised by Galton and Simpson, Perry and Croft and Ronnie Barker. Even if the people at the Beeb were only ever using it as a comedy sausage factory – it never felt like that.

My favourite of all the Playhouse-type series has to be Ronnie Barker’s Seven of One. It is a master class in storytelling and character comedy with Ronnie Barker and several brilliant writers on the form of their lives.

I think the reason Porridge and Open All Hours – not to mention The Magnificent Evans and Clarence – all came out of one series, is because they weren’t creating pilots to be developed, they were telling stories. Interesting, funny, original stories.

As much as it pains me to say it; this new Playhouse series doesn’t feel like it offers that.

Even though this series feels like a bit of a let-down, I’m glad they’ve brought the Playhouse back, and I hope that this bump in an otherwise smoothly tarmacked road, doesn’t derail future plans of returning to it.

The Comedy Playhouse was a firm tradition that allowed so many great and talented people the chance to shine and I hope the BBC don’t forget that in their goal to find the next big hit.