Monday, September 10, 2001 by

Our preconceptions of BBC2′s ‘Orrible are formed chiefly around its star and co-scriptwriter – Johnny Vaughan. His previous experience in this field is Snow White and the Seven Cons (the pantomime he wrote when serving a four year prison sentence), yet the ¬£5 million that the BBC spent to secure his services, ensures that expectations are high. Prior to this move, Vaughan’s comedic talents had been honed through years of presenting programmes such as Naked City, MovieWatch, and most famously – The Big Breakfast. On each he demonstrated an ability to satirise the function of the television presenter whilst successfully negotiating the twin hurdles of celebrity interviews and cutting to the news at the correct time. Vaughan confessed that ‘Orrible was borne out of his desire to escape such television and take his career in a new direction. We know he is a first class fast talker, but the question remains: can Johnny Vaughan write a good sitcom?

Broadcast on Monday nights just before Steven Moffat’s Coupling (a comedy with a reputation for elegantly structured farce and witty badinage), ‘Orrible is – in comparison – something of a letdown. The first episode opens with the central character, Paul Clark (played by Vaughan) in mid verbal flow. Vaughan clearly relishes writing and playing East End wide boys, and his affection for the character seeps through straight away. However, whilst the opening patois may be accurate, it soon becomes apparent that it isn’t funny enough. Once we receive enough information to form an impression of his true character, Clarke’s monologue becomes aimless and overlong, serving no other function. Thankfully, as the episode progresses there will be better moments than this, yet here it is as if Vaughan and Allen were so pleased with the authenticity of the lines they didn’t want to stop, and they certainly didn’t want to denaturalise it by including any jokes.

Not that this is a naturalistic comedy. In this first episode we are introduced to a rugby loving Welshman who says “boyo” quite a lot (Philip Madoc turning in a by numbers performance as Mervyn Rees), and an English toff who refers to everyone as “old boy” (ex-EastEnder William Boyde as Tim). Within the confines of a sitcom we do not expect fully fleshed out characters, yet the authorial affection and total emphasis on Paul Clark (to the exclusion of the other supporting roles) undermines any interplay that might take place. ‘Orrible is only able to serve up amusing and interesting moments of dialogue when Clark is given space to string out his latest flight of fantasy.

Like the supporting characters the plot too seems in need of additional work. The first episode is billed as a “comedy of errors” and revolves around taxi driver Clark providing a lift for local crimelord – Mervyn Rees. Due to a number of misunderstandings Rees proceeds to leave prized Welsh national rugby strips in the boot of Clark’s car, and Clark is subsequently led to believe that he has helped commit a bank robbery. The episode’s d√©nouement involves Clark deciding to burn his car, just in time for Rees to turn up, explain the misunderstanding and issue the requisite punishment, ensuring that the episode ends with a suitable climax. Whilst the plot sounds straightforward (if a little predictable) the way it is told indicates that these are first time scriptwriters. For example, Rees’s status as a figure to be feared is reinforced, not through demonstration, but by having a number characters make explicit reference to his notoriety. In addition, it is imperative for the audience to become aware in advance of Clark that Rees has accidentally left behind a valuable possession. This information is disclosed to us by having Rees telephone one of Clark’s friends and tell him. In order to create the misunderstanding though, Vaughan and Allen have to ensure that this information never gets to Clark. How is this achieved? Simple, Clark’s friend is dope-smoker and therefore instantly forgets anything he is told.

Whilst obvious plot techniques can appeal to a literate audience, wise to the conventions of the genre, ‘Orrible does not seek to be a post-modern sitcom. The inclusion then of such contrivances would seem to indicate that the writers just don’t know to construct a believable story in which plot twists evolve through believable happenstance or ingenious miscommunication. This becomes most apparent during the middle of the episode: the narrative effectively stops as the characters – ensconced in their local pub – turn on the television just in time to allow Vaughan and Allen to fill in the remainder of the plot via a television crime programme. The inclusion of some well-observed sarcastic comments allows ‘Orrible to almost get away with this obvious macguffin, but ultimately we are left feeling short-changed.

There are seven more episodes of ‘Orrible to come, and one hopes that – in time – we shall see subtleties in the characters and storylines that have not been forthcoming in this first episode. Certainly there is some merit in the character of Paul Clark, but currently he exists in a world unable to sustain his closely observed nuances. Until more compelling evidence surfaces though, we are left to conclude that this bold commission by the BBC owes less to Vaughan’s comedic skills, and more to his ability to fast talk his way past Television Centre’s reception desk.


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