Saturday, 14 February 2009

Not Going Out, But Must We Suffer This?

Not Going Out
BBC One - Friday 13th February, 9.30pm

Did you watch Not Going Out last night? No, of course not. You were out. And if you were in and watched this you wished you weren’t. Believe me.

Someone with scheduling authority obviously considers Lee Mack to be a very funny man, and has allowed him to script and star in his own sitcom effectively playing himself, an irritating yet faintly charming man with a small, complicated network of acquaintance who act as a foil to puncture his more grandiose schemes and romantic ambitions.

Series 3 has somehow still dug its claws into one of the best prime time television slots going (although 9.30pm Friday night is certainly not what it once was). This is surprising for several reasons, most obviously that it’s badly written tosh which would look amateurish if it was performed on the back of a GCSE Creative Writing course. What would have made for a lowlight on a particularly insipid Tuesday evening on BBC3 is vaulted to Friday night glory. The script is so leaden you could weep, marshalling set-ups and punchlines of such crushing inevitability and tedium that you feel the urge to destroy your most valuable possession simply to reassert mankind’s freewill. Everything about it feels rushed, as if the writers had given themselves a deadline of 24 hours to complete the project and instead of adrenaline-soaked brilliance we’re left with nervous half-hearted gags delivered with stilted awkwardness.

Yet at a deeper level, the main surprise is how sheerly old-fashioned the construction is. In recent years the BBC has delivered a succession of quality, naturalistic, subtle comedies. Stripped of a studio audience and the need to frame a script around “jokes”, productions are then free to convey something more realistic, less sarcastic, as well as allowing scope for scenes that may not necessarily raise a laugh but bring genuine dramatic interest. Enjoyable recent examples include Sunshine, Extras, and Gavin and Stacey.

Not Going Out however is resolutely shot in front of a studio audience, involves a battery of ceaseless quickfire gags, and makes hay with that staple of bland comedy – minor misunderstandings and pointless deceptions which quickly get out of hand all culminating in a final scene where the daftness reaches breaking point and the preposterous conceits are revealed. Moreover, most of the targets for its comedic focus could be found in any of the later Carry On films and save for the inclusion of the occasional expletive or over-cooked sex metaphor this series could quite happily serve as a curtain raiser for Sunday fare such as Songs of Praise.

In Episode 3, the plot turns on the arrival of a lesbian couple in Lee’s building. Or as Lee says to his best friend Tim on first sighting them “hang on, exotica one o’clock”. They celebrate the arrival of their new neighbours by opening a bottle of champagne and organise a party for themselves and the lesbians. The party is spoilt a) when only one lesbian turns up – the other having sensibly jettisoned both her and this risible situation, and b) Lee’s landlord/flatmate/love-interest Lucy arrives. The rest of the episode is taken up with male angst – Lee’s dismay as the predatory lesbian seeks to “turn” Lucy, and Tim concerned that his first girlfriend became a lesbian because of his poor kissing ability:

Tim - Her name was Lola.
Lee –She was a showgirl
Tim –What?
Lee – It’s a Barry Mannilow gag

Yes it sure is! How that hideous exchanged survived the editing process is beyond me. The inclusion of the phrase “it’s a Barry Mannilow gag” in the shooting script ought to generate the same sort of corporate nervousness as Jeremy Clarkson talking politics, or Russell Brand talking at all. Certainly, you cannot help feel the writers were playing with fire when Lee and his kooky cleaner, Barbara (played by Miranda Hart, a sort of cross between a fish and a horse, one of the oddest but ultimately most endearing looking women on mainstream television) exchanged gags which almost referenced how un-funny the script is:

Barbara – You’ll ruin any vague chance you have with Lucy if she finds out you and Tim are inviting strangers round to get your jollies.
Lee – I find that quite offensive actually. [pause] Do you really think I could get my jollies. [in response to her look of disgust] It’s a joke! The only foursome Tim ever gets involved with is in on the golf course.
Barbara – It’s always the posh ones that are swingers. Do you get it? Golf? Swingers? I’m in the wrong job.

The last sentence felt like the first one in the programme delivered with any real conviction.

Much is often made of the BBC’s supposed devotion to political correctness and minority inclusion, a notion thoroughly disabused here. The sexual politics of the programme are, at best, muddled and at worst unthinkingly spiteful. We run the gamut of lesbian stereotypes from the “hot” couple down the hall, to the angry man-hating book shop owner all amidst a sea of references to car mechanics and rugby coaches. “Why would we invite women to a lesbian party?” being just one of many sentiments delivered not quite ironically enough. The suggestion that the two male leads might have kissed each other is responded to with a heartfelt “don’t be disgusting”.

Punctuating these scenes, some only a couple of minutes in length, we are treated to blasts of Nelson Riddle-esque big band jazz as the camera swoops over the great financial institutions of London in what looks suspiciously like stock footage left over from The Apprentice. Quite what we ought to make of repeated allusions to The City are unclear. If you’ve lost your job because of the credit crunch and happen to believe the fault lies entirely at the door of our elite bankers this must be a tremendous distraction. It also brings into sharp relief that, from what I could tell during this episode, Lee doesn’t appear to have a job at all but doubtless there is some explanation in the show’s backstory which explains how he can afford to share a flat whose monthly rent must be nudging four figures.

For all that, Lee Mack is an endearing performer and he did wrench the one laugh of the piece out of me (his sudden appearance from behind a sofa just before Lucy was about to enjoy her first gay kiss) although I did feel cross at myself for laughing – a guilty pleasure that’s just a bit too guilty and not pleasurable enough to genuinely enjoy. Like a lot of performers, comedy panel shows seem to be a better showcase of Mack’s natural wit and comedic skills, his own team captaincy of Would I Lie To You? being genuinely successful.

Perhaps the greatest problem of Not Going Out is how it makes viewers aware that not going out is precisely their own status. At least back in the days of Frasier one could at least delude oneself that staying in on a Friday night guaranteed genuine televisual entertainment. This programme simply rubs it in right from the Sinatra glamour of the theme tune – I would complain that its inclusion would lead a more cynical man than me to conclude the title of the programme was chosen as an excuse to reference a favourite song of the writer that had little thematic relevance but that would probably be too hypocritical for words.

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