Good Pin-Up Material

TJ Worthington on Xerxes

First published February 2003

For all the talk of how “progressive” present day Channel 4 programming is, and how the current regime want to return to the boundary-pushing reputation that it enjoyed in the 1980s, there is no escaping the fact that the channel’s once-laudable commitment to minority programming in all its many and varied forms has all but vanished. There is no more significant an indicator of this fact than the almost complete lack of foreign language programming in the schedules.

Once Channel 4 seemed to delight in giving viewers the chance to experience and enjoy television from around the globe, and occasionally even managed to turn some very unlikely shows indeed into something approaching cult favourites – Empress Wu and Chateauvallon may be little remembered now, but at the time that they were broadcast in the UK, they were surprisingly well known to a significant proportion of viewers. What’s more, they weren’t hidden away in late night or midday slots, either. More often than not, imported foreign language shows would be found in the same early evening slot that now plays host to endless repeats of Friends and such risible fare as Dishes.

Over the summer of 1989, that slot played host to a sophisticated subtitled comedy show with surprisingly adult overtones.

Directed by Peter Schildt for Sweden’s Sveriges TV in 1988, Xerxes was billed as a sitcom (and indeed is described as such in the Radio Times Guide to TV Comedy), but it differed from the stereotyped view of the sitcom genre in many key respects. Firstly, it followed a developing linear storyline through six episodes rather than featuring one self-contained story per episode. Secondly, it was performed and presented without a laugh track, which lent it a greater degree of realism and authenticity (although, propelled by a breezy optimism and a lack of desire to pretend it was anything other than a comedy drama, this was far removed from the excruciatingly forced plausibility of present day laughtrack-free sitcoms such as The Office). Most significantly, while undeniably positive and upbeat, it dealt with themes and obsessions that were far removed from the traditional “safe” realm of the situation comedy.

The central obsession of Xerxes was sex. Or, to be more accurate, the fixation with sex of curious but frustrated red-blooded teenagers, keen to start experimenting but finding no one to experiment with. However, this was not handled in the smutty, overplayed and quasi-lecherous style that might ordinarily be expected from the sitcom genre. Instead, the treatment of the subject in Xerxes was awkward, unsettling and sometimes almost verging on sinister, but always infused with a sense of familiarity and realism. As much as Channel 4 might have a reputation for showing challenging programmes and films, Xerxes was one of the frankest and most authentic depiction of physical urges ever witnessed on British television. But is was not at all exciting or arousing for that. The sexual scenarios explored in the programme might well have been comic, but they bore no relation to the Confessions films. For the most part they were drab and desperate, and generally involved unrequited urges.

The series resolved around two recent school leavers, Xerxes (Benny Haag) and Tony (Joakim Borjlind), and a bizarre bet that they had entered into with each other. They felt the gloom of bleak employment prospects on the horizon (aspirant poet Tony commemorated their move into the adult world with a moody composition entitled Meaningless Grades are Hurled at us Like Stones), but were actually more concerned about their total lack of prowess with the opposite sex. Further frustrated by the boasts of their macho friend Pekka (Kalle Westerdahl), who rarely stopped showing off about his experiences with sex-starved Colonels’ wives while on National Service, the pair set each other the unlikely and unrealistic challenge of seeing who could accumulate the greatest number of female conquests in a month. Their respective scores were tallied by “collecting” the size tags from their sexual partners’ knickers, which were to be obtained surreptitiously and then initialled and deposited in an envelope hidden down the side of a plantpot in a local cafe. Tony tried to rely on his status as a sensitive poet to win over women, with predictably unspectacular results, while Xerxes used his natural skills as a charming and confident conversationalist. Unfortunately, he was prone to using these skills in completely the wrong way, and one early episode saw him get a cup of fresh filter coffee thrown in his face when he threw caution to the wind and simply asked a girl, whom he had been chatting up quite successfully up to that point, if he could have the tag from her knickers.

As the series progressed, the competition intensified and the methods adopted in the seemingly vain hope of ensuring success grew ever more bizarre. Everything was ultimately side-tracked as the overeager pair learnt some harsh truths about themselves and their attitudes to women, and ironically success only came when they eventually abandoned the bet. The points made by Xerxes weren’t laboured or overstated, though, and were brilliantly couched in some inventive humour and highly acidic dialogue (“I want proof – what size are the knickers?” – “you said in your poem that grades are meaningless”).

Although now almost completely forgotten (Robert Lewisohn can find little more to say about the series in his Radio Times Comedy Guide than that the main cast made “good pin-up material”), Xerxes was highly inventive and stunningly original, and indeed won several awards for small screen innovation in Sweden. Despite being presented in a foreign language, the humour and the sensitive treatment of the subject matter translated perfectly to British viewers. In fact, it became something of a minor cult hit when shown by Channel 4, and is recalled with great fondness by those that saw it.

The series still seems to be highly regarded in Europe – try finding a Scandinavian nostalgia website that doesn’t mention it – and Benny Haag went on to become a highly regarded art house actor in Sweden (meanwhile, lower down the cast list was Camilla Malmqvist, who would later marry A-Ha vocalist Morten Harket). Long overdue for a repeat run on these shores, Xerxes is testament not only to what can be achieved in comedy when “difficult” subjects are handled with tact and subtlety, but also to the support for non-mainstream programming that Channel 4 once represented and could indeed represent again.

There have probably been dozens of series of a similar quality to Xerxes made in Europe since 1989, and it would be fascinating to see them in a similar sort of timeslot. Because, frankly, the episode of Friends where Joey and Chandler get big chairs and a big TV has lost some of its lustre after eight million early evening repeats.