Friday, October 13, 2006 by

The first two episodes of Lead Balloon on BBC4 have been nothing but a joy.

Jack Dee might be playing Jack Dee with a sillier name, but his performance in a programme scripted with beauty and precision makes you forgive any element of typecasting or taking the easy option which the unduly churlish could launch his way. After all, the best writers write about what they know best. It’s logical.

The character of Rick Spleen, a deadpan comic who is getting too reliant on highly-paid but lowbrow corporate and commercial events, draws on all the modern annoyances of your average grumpy man who is deeply dissatisfied with his working life. Despite the support of a partner who grafts very hard as a publicity dogsbody to the C-list, a matter-of-fact European au pair and American co-writer, Spleen manages to show as little appreciation for them as possible due to his own deep self-loathing.

Episode one showed him demeaning himself by dressing as the globe for an environmental awareness ad campaign, for which he was recompensed too handsomely for the sniping press, who proceeded to rummage through his dustbins (should have done an ad about identity theft instead, like that nice Mr McGowan) and expose all Spleen’s own environmental shortcomings (paper, cans) as well as digging up other items of waste which he had thrown out to protect the feelings of family and friends.

And a week on, we saw the character trying to avoid buying a new toaster, stealing teaspoons from his local eaterie and whingeing about the noise his walnut-brained paper boy makes of a morning, all while trying to script a new DVD called People do the Dumbest Things: 3. There is nothing but joy in Spleen’s perennial despair and apathy about all around him, not least in an outstanding scene in which he goes to the newsagent to complain about the lad, only to be greeted with a wholly disinterested woman who didn’t look up from a copy of a magazine throughout their conversation, during which she tried to anticipate – wrongly and profligately each time – what he wanted.

I’m glad the critics I have read have reacted warmly to the programme. It’s like all the best comedy – the right characterisation will take you through the right plot, not vice versa, and Lead Balloon works on this level. The writing is superb; the performances are suitably understated; the absence of a studio audience, the shooting on film rather than video, the adoption of swinging camerawork and the regular use of locations rather than sets all add gravitas to the project. It’s a complete hit.

So it now begs the question as to why the BBC have aired it on BBC4. Comedy on all levels has taken a battering of late – especially sitcom – and there seems to be little in the way of instinct or “feel” for a show when it comes to a scheduling question. Some new comedies might be garbage, some certainly are; but it seems jolly indecent of the Corporation to use the raising of the comedy bar as a reason to keep quality projects like Lead Balloon away from the masses. Yet there have been trailers for it everywhere – BBC1, BBC2, News 24, Radio 5 Live – so the contradiction is clear: watch this, watch this, oh do watch this, but as it’s on BBC4, if it’s rubbish it won’t matter. Okay?

Lead Balloon is anything but rubbish. If the BBC has any sense, it’ll let the series end, then immediately bang it on BBC1 at 9.30pm one night a week. It’s so obviously good, why wait?


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