Friday, September 5, 2003 by

Invariably, when the epithet “gentle” is thrown at a television programme, it is meant as a criticism. Unsophisticated, they mean. Without depth. For the masses. No class. It’s an easy way of quietly pouring scorn on a populist show without having the guts, or the facts, to back up your argument. dinnerladies is such a show. Gentle comedy, snigger the critics, as if that was the hallmark of mediocrity. And there is no denying that dinnerladies is a gentle comedy.

But it is much, much more than that. Whilst the likes of Black Books and Spaced take the same critics’ acclaim, Victoria Wood’s quietly brilliant portrayal of a group of, er, dinner ladies remains relatively undisturbed in terms of acclaim and goes about its business of making people laugh apace.

In terms of an ensemble cast, this show is the equal of anything on British television in the last decade. It sets a standard that few can match, even the more famous American imports such as Frasier or Seinfield. First and foremost, it is this aspect of the show that separates it from its peers. Wood’s talent as a writer is such that she is able to colonize a set with around a dozen first-class actors and they can respond to her trenchant and witty observations and make the characters their own. This is a wonderful talent and something that many a British comedy could do with. It could be argued, indeed, that shows such as Coupling and Black Books are infinitely inferior in this respect, with their small and deliberately limited casts. And I, for one, would be prepared to argue that point. Forget about the dynamics of relationships and establishing identities, dinnerladies can sustain such a large cast (in sitcom terms) due to the quality of the writing alone. Factor in the brilliant casting and this is sheer, unadulterated bliss that sits a league above and a class apart.

Bucking the notion that you need a team of scriptwriters to produce a show with plenty of laughs, this is a programme that, surely, merits the prefix “classic”. Eschewing the notion of catering for a particular demographic group or wanting to belong to a specific comedic genre, dinnerladies clings steadfast to the old-fashioned ideal of simply being a warm, humorous show that people, regardless of age, creed or social status, can watch and enjoy. Too often sitcoms are narrowly aimed at certain social groupings or, alternatively, attempt to embrace buzzwords such as “surreal” or “dark”. Here is a bright, breezy, consistently wonderful antidote to that school of thinking.

The cast are uniformly never less than excellent and play their roles to perfection. Whether it’s Celia Imrie as the wonderfully garrulous Phillipa, Duncan Preston’s delightful turn as Stan or Bernard Wrightey’s incidental genius as Bob the frustrated customer, this is a sublime cast performing at the highest level. Each character is performed with remarkable attention to detail (from Bren’s shoes to Stan’s shrugs), and each actor clearly relishes their part and have made their character their own. Given that they were provided with so much to start with and their own talents, this is hardly surprising. Wood has a wonderful eye as well as an ear for character detail. By giving such substantial depth and detail to each and every character, the cast have much flesh to make good with. If only the overwhelming majority of sitcoms followed this clearly defined hard-work ethic when fleshing out characters. Too often we’re faced with a show in which all thought and efforts are focused on the main character (I’m Alan Partridge, anyone?) or a sitcom where all the characters are predictable stereotypes, such as Trevor’s World of Sport.

dinnerladies also is free from the criticism of comparison. Nearer in spirit to the comedies of Croft and Perry than the handful of other sitcoms mentioned thus far, it also ably refutes the asinine allegation that it harks back to a golden era of comedy. It does this by framing its points of cultural reference in a real time cross-generational fashion. Thus tonight we had nods to Alma Coogan, Bhs, Rock Hudson, Molly Weir and Elton John to name but a few, as the cast bantered their way through the episode. This captures the flavour of working in such an environment and adds to the authenticity of the show. In an age of presumed evolving audience sophistication this is no mean feat, and one that should be commended.

It may be regarded as an old-fashioned kind of comedy but, in truth, dinnerladies is timeless. It has assembled, arguably, the finest cast seen on a British sitcom in recent times and provided a consistent level of performance as well as a delightfully high gag ratio. Brilliantly written, wonderfully observed, and above all else, beautifully played, this is a show that has not been given the praise it so, so richly deserves.


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