When Stephen Fry said recently that British TV was childish and had fallen way behind the best form the US, I agreed wholeheartedly.
What has the UK produced to match the subtlety of The Wire, the originality of Mad Men or the cleverness of Curb Your Enthusiasm? Mad Men in particular has blown me away, changing the whole way I think about an historical period. The programme manages to combine period style and sexiness with an unremitting feeling of menace, the madness simmering just below the surface.
But this short post is by way of offering a bit of balance. In the last two weeks I have been watching the seventh season of Curb and also the first two episodes of BBC’s new comedy about an inner city vicar, ‘Rev’. Maybe it’s just me, and perhaps any format starts to wear thin, but I’m finding the former about as funny as an attack of haemorrhoids. Where once there was clever plotting and ingenious twists now there are contrived and totally predictable running gags. Where before the humour was not only politically incorrect, but also knowing and subversive, now it is simply lazy and offensive, taking it in turns to get laughs from racial stereotypes, disabled people and overweight women.
In fact, if Curb deteriorates any further it will approach the subterranean depths of what is without doubt the most overrated comedy in human history ‘Little Britain’ (currently managing to make the Nationwide Building Society look even less sophisticated).
In contrast Rev is brilliant. Although occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, it is mainly happy to strike a tone of poignant amusement. After every episode I wish all the characters were locals in the neighbourhood pub. I would love to talk theology and sociology with Reverend Smallbone (Tom Hollander), flirt with his wife Olivia Colman (fantastic bone structure) and slag off the World Cup diving of continental footballers with lost soul Colin (Steve Evets), who would surely talk to me about anything as long as I bought him a strong pint of lager.
Some churlish critics have said Rev is simply Vicar of Dibley with a grimy face but I think it’s English sitcom at its best. The good guys are flawed, hassled, care worn but with a deep sense of fairness, the bad guys are privileged, pompous and self serving, and some characters - like the Archdeacon Robert (Simon McBurney) are nicely ambiguous.
So we are rubbish at football and tennis, and it may be only talent show formats where we excel in the global TV stakes, but maybe we can claw back just a little of our reputation for comedy.