Sunday, February 27, 2005 by

For a long time Paul Whitehouse has been considered to be – in his various guises – as merely Harry Enfield’s sidekick or “that bloke off The Fast Show“. Whilst these tags, are technically correct, he is so much more deserving of greater accolades. If the brilliant Happiness wasn’t enough to secure him a place among the great comic writers and actors, then the hope should be his new vehicle, HELP, will do just that.

On the basis of psychotherapy comedy-drama’s opening episode alone alone, he can’t fail to scoop a nice little handful of awards come the time when such ceremonies present themselves.

The premise of the show itself is very much a simple one. An array of different characters presents themselves and their psychological problems in front of a therapist. In the hands of lesser comic writers and performers, this could have been very much a hit and miss affair, and at worst a disaster. A mistake, would have been to employ a troupe of different actors, each taking on the roles of the diverse characters, therefore causing it descend into an unstructured, series of comedy sketches. However, with Whitehouse courageously taking on all of the client roles and Chris Langham sitting rather comfortably in the therapist’s chair, it’s resulted in a tragic-comic triumph.

The first client, preceding the opening titles, was a particularly unattractive Liverpudlian whose only problem appeared to be that he had sex, “four or five times a day”, much to the therapist’s surprise. This opener, could not have mislead the viewer more as to what the show would later present, in that it could have quite easily worked as a Fast Show sketch. The pay-off to this scene was that this loathsome character was beyond help after delivering his own self-diagnosis with the line: “With a problem like this, I’m not going get a great deal of sympathy.”

Langham’s incarnation of the analyst must also be commended. He fleshes out the role, with a brilliantly subtle, display of understated frustration at his patients inability to take heed of his advice. Again, were this role, to be placed under the charge of a less-talented actor, it could have been given the full pompous, angst-ridden stereotypical angle we have come to expect. No stranger to playing the part of a therapist, adopting, as he did that profession in the patchy sitcom, Kiss Me Kate, he switches from playing it straight for moments of pathos, and then for laughs, with seemingly effortless ease. This gives the role believability, and allows plenty of room for Whitehouse to stretch out fully every nuance of his characters’ respective flaws.

Each patient had the perfect blend of tragic and comedic elements. This gave us the feeling that we were not just witnessing a vehicle for Whitehouse’s talent for characterisation and mimicry, but were watching a very much-understated comic genius at work. The impressive display of personalities in the first episode were wide-ranging, and original. We had the docile hippy who was convinced that he could “squat in other people’s minds” by entering their spirits, but turned out to be nothing more than the influence of a large intake of hallucinogenic drugs. Then, the partially deaf old fellow, with the speech defect, presumed as a result of private school sodomy. Also, the hotheaded Italian, who had anger management issues, which thanks to the excellent writing, skillfully avoided lapsing into a xenophobic portrayal.

The most moving, though, was the old Jewish taxi driver Monty, which with the help of some astounding facial prosthetics did not resemble Whitehouse at all. This patient was a lovable old fellow, whose problems revolved around his wife, suffering from Alzheimer’s, and the traumas that are attributed to the constant care she requires. It is revealed that his mother suffered from dementia, leaving him to ensure professional care for her. As a result, he was left to look after his younger brother. Now with his spouse suffering a similar fate, he effectively became the sole parent for his daughter. The therapist’s, assessment that Monty had been a carer of some kind throughout his life was met with short shrift from the patient. “This word ‘carer’, it’s a modern word, isn’t it?” he protested calmly, “I have merely been a son and a father.” The final story of Monty’s chapter of the episode, would have bought a tear to a glass eye. He told of an occasion, in which his wife had failed to recognise the couple in a photograph of them enjoying a cruise in their younger days. She did, however, remark that they looked like they were very much in love. The ability to deliver, a story such as that, whilst not only adopting a convincing Jewish/London accent – not dissimilar to Michael Winner – wearing what must have been a heavy facemask, and still conveying the emotion required for such a role, is only testament to the actor’s remarkable talent. It’s no wonder he is said to be Johnny Depp’s favourite English thespian.

It can only be hoped that HELP can maintain the high standard set out by this opening episode. With Chris Langham and Paul Whitehouse – who also penned the series – at the helm, we can almost be assured this will be the case.


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