In the world of popular television, there may be little alchemy more precarious than that of creating a popular sitcom hit.
If ever the philosophy was that British viewers liked something a little savage or self-loathing, the success, in recent years, of shows such as Mrs Brown’s Boys, Benidorm and Miranda has proven that going mainstream can deliver the new cult success, and with programmes such as Gavin and Stacey and Rev scooping up both viewers and critical plaudits, it is clear that there is a place for simple, old-fashioned niceness too.
Boomers – which starts on BBC One this Friday – unashamedly targets this middle-ground in a programme which, according to executive producer, Jimmy Mulville, ‘hopefully will be the Outnumbered for the 68 year old’.
Starring Russ Abbot and Stephanie Beacham as one of three couples who enjoy the frustrations and benefits of life in retirement, it comes with the cosy reassurance that everyone knows some people like these people, and actively avoids the pressure-cooker anarchy that underscored the BBC’s last retirement-themed comedy, One Foot in the Grave, twenty years ago.
But whereas one of One Foot in the Grave’s most famous scenes played off the surrealist possibility that Victor might pick up a dog instead of a handset, in Boomers, the 60-somethings are far more genially-tempered than Meldrew – and, in any case, have eschewed landlines in favour of wi-fi.
The result is a sitcom which dares to tick some of the boxes that have previously fallen out of favour in television comedy: an all-white cast, a non-urban setting, and the kind of comedy of recognition that may chime with viewers who also, like one of the characters, favour ‘a take-away in front of Eggheads’.
Theoretically, there should be an audience for this stuff – for the viewer, of whatever age, who has come to reject cringe-comedy of cruelty or embarrassment. However, it may be that, in trying so hard to avoid the provocative, the programme-makers have, ironically, waded into controversies of their own. June Whitfield’s remarks, in the press launch, that, on television, ‘Middle-class – it’s almost become a dirty word’ have already generated column inches.
No person of sound heart could ever wish to disagree with a legend such as June Whitfield – and it is absolutely true that all audiences need to be represented on television. But where Boomers, on the evidence of its first two episodes, fails is not in reclaiming the territory for the middle-class or middle-aged, but in underestimating them. These sixty-somethings are simply not savage enough.
There are decent performances here – in particular, from Paul Wilcox as the timid and maritally-disgruntled Carol, whose over-cautiousness extends even to parking the car. However the glorious Whitfield is kept on the leash with a running gag about filching booze, and a moment of broad comedy involving a stunt double and some pub stairs.
Russ Abbot – possibly himself unfairly a byword for middle-of-the-road comedy, as if a heyday of mass audiences is somehow an artistic failure – plays it straight as John. But his gag-spinning warmth as performer, although untapped here, is huge. In the press conference, he earned some of the biggest laughs of the night by speculating darkly on whether his own funeral service would be accompanied by ‘Atmosphere’ and ‘All Night Holiday’. [We want to live in a world where this happens.]
And so Boomers is awarded the ignominy of a high-summer launch, the schedulers sensibly reasoning that anyone who is likely to be watching television live on a Friday night in August is unlikely to belong to the generation of series links and instant downloads.
Bizarrely, despite its obvious shortcomings, we hope that it will earn a second series in which to find its feet. Like musicals, the best sitcoms don’t get written: they get rewritten.
Sometimes, however, the schedules can be unforgiving, and it has not escaped our notice that, on Friday night, Boomers is followed by Outnumbered – a programme which, in its use of hand-held, single-camera set-ups, Boomers invites comparisons with.
Affection for the cast alone will see us keeping our fingers crossed; but, on the evidence thus far, we fear that these Boomers will land not with a boom, but a whimper.
Boomers begins at 9pm on Friday 15 August on BBC One.
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