Man to Man with Dean Learner

Friday, October 27, 2006 by

You wake up screaming and drenched in sweat. No, darling, don’t worry, go back to sleep. It’s all right … it wasn’t really you who commissioned Man to Man With Dean Learner. Unfortunately, there is a poor soul out there who goes to their rest without that excuse, because he (or she) okayed one of the most buttock-clenchingly terrible half-hours of TV in 2006. And he (or she) has to live with that. For ever.

“Dean Learner”, the curious creation of Richard Ayoade, first appeared on the brilliant cult spoof Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace in 2004. He is palpably absurd, at once a cretinous and untalented would-be superstud who talks in a bizarrely camp cockney singsong redolent of Ken Livingstone. And who now has, we are told, got himself a chat show on a major TV channel. As you do.

Nobody in their right mind, of course, would employ someone as obviously hated by the camera as this walking aberration – aside from his woodenness, there’s that daft David Grant-out-of-Linx scrunch-dry perm. Perhaps only Uncle Staveley from I Didn’t Know You Cared, a bombmaker for the Ulster Volunteer Force or the incontinent maiden aunt of the chief timetabler for postbuses in Westmorland would make a less likely host for prime time TV, whose tics and devices the show seems otherwise so eager to satirise to the nth degree of exactitude. This, of course, is supposed to be the point – this is supposed to be why it’s funny. Because it’s silly. Yes, we’re in Alan Partridge territory. Again.

The above feeble get-outs mirror those which holed Knowing Me, Knowing You … amidships – the fundamental implausibility of its premise, and now that its undeserved success has given programme-makers carte blanche to sanction swill like this (“Well, it’s supposed to be bad!”), it has another damning case to answer.

The problem with Knowing Me … was that, at the time of its inception, the likes of Partridge would never have come within a country mile of a chat show, and this effectively neutralised the programme’s valiantly-attempted use of authenticating detail of its look and feel and texture. The quite breathtakingly dreadful The Kumars at No 42 took this creaky conceit even further, but Man to Man … might do us one service in serving as the final resting-place of the always-dodgy spoof chat show format.

It’s hard to know where to start when enumerating what’s wrong with the thing, but one could suggest it began when someone at C4 gave more than 10 seconds consideration to such a diabolically bad idea in the first place. Worse, the pretend Dean Learner’s chat-show might be even more unpalatable TV than if the Learner and his concept and programme actually been for real.

Everything about this sorry affair is heavy-handed, dated. The irony is clunky, sledge-hammered home; self-conscious, crappy host; self-referential, camp look; fittings and furniture and tux and waistcoat like an ’80s footballer’s, frills and leatherette and teakalike. Made-up guests. Ho ho. Aren’t we clever.

Well, no, actually. Because, unlike Marenghi, these are people working with a lumpen script that of Cro-Magnon stupidity masquerading as postmodern chutzpah. In show two, the “guest” was a motor-racing driver, Steve Pising (played as an Anglo-Oz pseudo-Nigel Mansell with laudable effort but in vain by Matthew “Garth Marenghi” Holness). Instead of milking laughs by skirting the ambiguities of the character’s name – itself a cheap shot – it was “pissing” right from the off, and then this “gag” recurred roughly 141,000 times throughout the next half-hour. I’d rehearse some of the lines, but I think I’d rather extract my own eyeballs with a sugar spoon than write them down, or even remember I’d ever watched this crime against TV.

No, don’t go away, there’s more. There is actually a laugh track on this. Honestly. Given the exhilarating acuity of the spoofery on Marenghi, one hopefully suspects that this might be an ironic device, but if it is, it doesn’t work – the ha-ha stings to each lame pun, innuendo or simile merely emphasising the hideousness of the whole. One cannot shake the feeling that everyone involved is fervently praying, “Look, it’s supposed to be shit, all right? Don’t take it seriously.” Well, if I sit through 30 minutes of what is ostensibly comedy and I don’t even crack a smile, in fact if I end up hunched and whimpering with embarrassment behind the sofa, I think I am entitled to take such a disappointment at least a tad seriously.

A week before this TV car crash occurred, a must-have DVD of Marenghi episodes appeared, showing what the people behind this terrible show can really do. C4 have busily tagged it to Man to Man; it would be a shame if the former, one of the quirkiest and best TV comedies of the last 10 years was to be tainted by association with what is, without question, a turkey whose wings we will hear beating many years hence.

Abominable. You don’t wanna know. You really don’t.


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