These days, you’d probably have to pay a king’s ransom to get Billy Boyd, Julia Davis, Omid Djalili, Ben Miller, and David Walliams in a production together, but back in 1999 they all appeared in a three part comedy for Ch4 called Coming Soon, by the writer/director (auteur?) Annie Griffin. The story follows a rather self-involved, and self-important “devised theatre” group who spurn the tyranny of the scripted word in favour of trust exercises and endless workshopping. Their disdain for writers is both vocal and unequivocal… as they follow the example of their improvisatory idol (‘Julia Roth’, ironically played by Griffin herself) and prize the process over the production. They do, however, still require funding, and are forced to recruit a famous Scottish singer looking to break into movies, in order to qualify for a grant offered in honour of cross-border co-operation between England and her homeland. Needless to say, her populist appeal rubs the pretentious “artistes” up the wrong way, and gradually threatens to undermine the entire enterprise. To be fair though, it wasn’t the sturdiest of ships to begin with, as all the founding members of the group have their own selfish idiosyncrasies and agendas, especially when it comes to recruiting (and grooming) new cast members.
On the DVD commentary for her later sitcom The Book Group, Griffin stated the belief that characters don’t have to be especially sympathetic for the audience to want to follow their story. I’d agree, with the proviso that it depends on how well the characters are written and played. Vicki Pepperdine’s ‘Jen’ is a classic example… as the group’s director she spends the majority of her time being unapologetically arrogant, antagonistic and verbally abusive, and yet there’s something so endearing about her obliviousness, that when she finally does crack, you can’t help but care. Her utter conviction in the face of total apathy from audiences (and the world in general), is equal parts admirable and absurd. Julia Davis’s character (‘Kim’) spends most of the series off in her own little world, as one of the naive new recruits to the group. At first she just seems shy and gawky, but we soon realise that she may be a teeny bit “f*cked”, as Elaine C Smith so delicately puts it, during a somewhat one-sided “co-counselling” session. It’s a role that really plays to Davis’ strengths, as she works through different accents and personas, dances crazy, and unleashes her inner demons. Still, for me the stand-out has to be Mabel Aitken, in her largest role to date, as ‘Fiona’, the relentlessly perky Scottish fiancée of Walliams’s sleazy suit, and cofounder of the Trans-Ecosse scheme which is funding the folly. Not only does Fiona manage to keep smiling through Jen’s glowering rebukes, she openly admires her moxie, and even offers to set her up on a blind date with her brother! Bless. In many ways, she is my ideal woman… a cute suit, who’s organised and ambitious, but tolerant of the so-called “artistic temperament”. We might have to have words about the whole “getting drunk and dancing topless on tables” thing, but other than that she’s a darling…
I’ve long since given up trying to figure out why certain actors/shows/films/bands become popular, while others are left to sink sadly into obscurity. I think Griffin’s writing is incredibly smart, sharp, and savagely satirical… but at the same time, there’s something very humane about the way in which she exposes and indulges her characters’ follies and failures. In this case, she even allows her characters a “happy ending” to be going on with, even if they aren’t all where they wanted to be at the start of the run. In a contemporary review from the Guardian, the critic suggests that potential viewers may have been turned off by the setting and focus of the series… I guess it’s the reverse Office-effect, in that almost everyone has worked in an office environment at some point, and can more easily relate to the premise than they can to a show about a cliquey, close-knit theatre group… and maybe I’m biased by the fact that I’m an arty-type myself, but I’d still maintain that the performances and jokes are funny enough to warrant a wider audience, regardless.
Update: The first two episodes can now be viewed for free via YouTube. Warning: Clips may contain strong swearing and smugness.