Phoenix Nights

Thursday, August 22, 2002 by

Peter Kay and Stuart Maconie, seated together behind a desk. What more could you want?

While the former, as wheelchair-bound Phoenix Club kaiser Brian Potter, snapped and shrieked and sniffed conspiracy, the latter, properly resplendent in – what else – his best Stuart Maconie jacket, faffed and mugged amateurishly to camera, playing the host of fictional TV show Crimetime – “You know the time; it’s Crimetime“. The atmosphere crackled as the pair traded quips and exaggerated expressions of alarm. Stuart corpsed, repeatedly. Kay acted him and everyone else off the screen. All that was missing was enough panache and confidence to offset the sense that this wasn’t just two mates fooling around, blessed with a lacklustre script, and rather unsure, unfocused direction.

That the return of Phoenix Nights was long overdue and even longer anticipated reflected both the very pointed affection in which the first, fantastic, series was held in some quarters, and also the abject failure of any other comedy programme since to come close to matching its unashamed wit, excitement and freshness. With so much anticipation, compounded by a display of audacious bandwagon-jumping by seemingly the entire listings magazine community, this second series was probably always going to fail to meet somebody’s expectations. The practice of doting can, after all, so easily become an affliction. There’s much that’s great about Phoenix Nights, and yet …

The trouble is, with a programme such as this, what can seem pointless to some is nothing but precious to others. This is a tricky path to tread. So maybe it’s just too obvious a target, but you can’t help ignoring the fact that here’s Peter Kay appearing in a script part-written by Peter Kay and a show wholly directed by Peter Kay. Though foolish to attribute the occasional botched delivery of a line, the dull or fussy establishing shot, or the odd clunky exchange (“This tastes like horse shit – and I’ve tasted horse shit.” “You talk shit.”) to him alone, this Woody Allen-esque multi-skilling has paralleled the onset of a degree of inconsistency you could never have levelled at the first series.

This episode, the third in the run, began with the re-re-vamped Phoenix suddenly up, running and desperate for business. It closed on about as tepid a note as possible – a car pulling into the club forecourt. In-between our hero was struck with the idea of raising the Phoenix’s profile, and collaring bitter enemy Den Perry, through a televised reconstruction of the mysterious inferno that so recently had put him out of trade. Only somewhere the plot all but disappeared, swapped for an extended bit of slapstick and shouting courtesy of Kay and Maconie.

Sure, this was ace in its own way, but didn’t really lead anywhere, and called exceptional attention to itself by failing to sit as smoothly within the whole show as you felt it should. It’s open to question whether another director could have shot it a bit tighter and more imaginatively; what’s more significant is the way this and a few other extended sequences during the episode seemed lacking of Peter Kay’s trademark foresight and bravado.

Those qualities were there in the opening scene, via a cunning balance of the blatant (a masturbation gag straight out of the Carry On stable) and subtle (Potter complaining “I’ve just sat down.”) Indeed, it’s the attention to detail that has always been one of the show’s strongest and enduring qualities; here you had everything from Den Perry’s poster advertising “Rabbi Williams”; the framed pictures of Adrian Day and Tony Knowles; and background music playing in the Club that went from the Enigma Variations to a exuberantly sung church hymn. It’s elsewhere, however, that things have gone a bit awry.

For instance, one element that has seemed monumentally out of place is the increasingly pronounced enmity between Brian and colleague Jerry. In the first series their bickering and name-calling was the foundation for neat set piece jokes and plot twists, while also remaining relentlessly funny for being at heart so petty and juvenile. Now their erstwhile good-natured competition has been elevated into a more professional business-like rivalry, and rooted in a rather weary “who’s in charge” premise. There are few laughs to be found here; moreover, it just duplicates and in the process somewhat deflates the similarly mercantile jousting between Brian and the spectacular Den Perry. The upshot is too many serious two-handed scenes between Brian and a forever-shifty looking Jerry, which are just irritating; while Ted Robbins’ majestic pantomime villain is slowly reduced to the role of Kay’s stooge: bumbling into view, lavishly suited, clutching an oversized cigar, pausing long enough for Peter to swear at him a bit, then wander off.

Perhaps it’s just because the characters arrived on screen from the off so expertly formed, fully realised and superbly performed, that by the time the initial series were over most of their potential to amuse, surprise and shock had almost been exhausted. Certainly, after handling a bunch of feckless arrogant student hecklers, a life-threatening bowel illness, and having turned down the chance to compère a round-the-world cruise, the inevitability of finding Jerry parading around dressed as a giant berry, or – blimey – conducting a job interview couldn’t help but leave you a bit depressed and disgruntled. Can’t his character be given a slightly more involved role in proceedings, you have to wonder, rather than simply playing support to endless sight gags (spilling coffee on his trousers so it looks like he’s pissed himself, or sporting implausibly dyed haircuts)?

Furthermore, where once the lightning pace just carried you along helplessly, there’s now all too many moments where almost nothing is happening and the stilted timing allows you to start wondering where some of the imagination, the tight plotting, and the sparkle of those original episodes has gone. Of course, with each of these complaints it’s perhaps a case of, having first set such a high standard, each subsequent effort cannot help but come over as an exercise in revisiting former glories, or re-treading old conceits. Besides, much of comedy is about simple repetition, and simultaneously confirming and confounding an audience’s preconceptions. So on one level it’s quite enough that Phoenix Nights still boasts a way above-average stock of brazenly crap puns (“I’m just a puppet here.” “A puppeteer?”), vintage innuendos (“Police probe Leeds girl’s snatch” – one of Maconie’s better lines) and plenty of scenes beginning with Potter simply bawling “Woah woah woaaaaahhhhhh!”

But at the same time it’d be churlish to deny that gnawing conclusion that, so far this series at any rate, there’s a slight meandering, taken-for-granted tone evident on screen, and that isn’t what you’d expect from Peter Kay. You have to keep watching, though, not only for those occasional killer throwaway lines (“Two words – ‘Biko’”) but the fact that Phoenix Nights is still, regardless of flaws, the best comedy on telly at the moment. It’s also damn near impossible not to want to know what ludicrous misfortune will be meted out to Brian Potter and his clan come the end of the series.

In the meantime, though, give us more Max and Paddy fooling about for no reason. And tell us a joke we know.


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