It’s a welcome return for BBC Two’s Grandma’s House, in which Simon Amstell appears in a Simon Amstell-scripted programme, acting as a TV presenter called Simon Amstell who may – or may not be – a good representation of the real-life Simon Amstell.
A good deal of the pleasure of this programme is utterly failing to see where the fiction ends, and how much of the half-hour is ripped from true life.
You’ll have noticed that we keep referring to the lead character (and lead actor) by his full name, which, indeed, is a habit of Mark, a somewhat young man who is his latest lover, although Simon would probably kvetch a great deal at Mark being referred to as such.
‘You showed him who’s boss, though’ Clive joshes in an attempt at man-to-man solidarity when discussing Simon’s romantic endeavours of the night before. Simon isn’t too sure that he was in fact boss: ‘I think we were just both self-employed’, he mutters, in an increasingly convoluted attempt at metaphor.
Mum (the ever wonderful Rebecca Front) tells Simon that he needs a haircut, before asking him if he needs further acting lessons, her expression clearly displaying her agreement with the majority of critics, that Simon can’t act at all. It’s this teasing at the public perception of Simon Amstell that forms the background of this series, as does the fact that nobody can agree if the show he’s committing to is comedy or drama. ‘Maybe’, he replies slowly, accepting that perhaps he isn’t the best actor. ‘Maybe.’
Amstell is a remarkably interesting comic, if only for his great desire to expose the absolute truth – not only to cut to the bone, but very much past the bone. This tends to underlined by the simple fact that he mentions this desire quite often in interviews, and that at least some of the narrative in this show is lifted directly from his own experiences.
It’s this sort of uncomfortable truth that really smacks of reality, and the reason that it works is that it’s Simon – bewildered, confused, occasionally amused – that emerges as the victim here, and nobody else. That’s not to say that the other characters don’t suffer – and in this episode, one character suffers greatly, and never says so – but nobody is mocked for a cheap laugh, even when Simon is attempting to do exactly that, as opposed to, say, the more recent output from someone like Ricky Gervais.
Once the comedy (drama) show is mentioned, Simon remarks that his life is not exactly full of sit-com type events – and then, of course, at least three occur in rapid succession – all of them uncomfortably funny, and at the same time, true to life and somewhat depressing.
As Simon struggles to make sense of the (non) events that unfold around him, this programme is the closest we’ve got to visiting someone’s internal dialogue – certain gags are thrown away before you’ve even had a chance to register what’s been said (‘I don’t look like him’, Simon protests when he’s given the nick-name ‘Facebook’) and his inability to cope when his new boyfriend (very likely tweeting that he’s just slept with Simon Amstell when we first see him) keeps on calling him by his full name.
The chemistry between Amstell and Rebecca Front is just great – very often it looks like they’re struggling to keep a straight face when faced with something unexpected the other has said – and manage to communicate real pathos as this episode addresses the loss of grandpa (both the character, and then the actor, Geoffrey Hutchings, have died since the filming of Series 1), and they attempt to face up to his death, even if Grandma (Linda Bassett) cannot.
It’s a very lazy journalistic trope to end with a line that suggest that this is Woody Allen meets Mike Leigh – but it’s that mix of paper-cut sharp dialogue and genuinely moving characters that make such a description entirely apt.
Aired at 10pm on Thursday 19th April 2012 on BBC Two.
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