★★ HOLD THE SUNSET, BBC ONE John Cleese, Alison Steadman star in exhumation of sitcom genre
You need to be of a certain vintage to have any memory of the traditional suburban family sitcom. Like the Raleigh Chopper and the Betamax video, like amateur athletics and glamrock and key parties, it is an extinct cultural artefact. What did for it? The internet, mainly, and the kids not watching scheduled telly any more, and maybe the rise of stand-up. After one episode of Hold the Sunset (BBC One), the suburban family sitcom is still dead. It’s as dead as a well-known parrot whose demise was pronounced by John Cleese. Mystifyingly, Cleese has chosen this moment to return to sitcom for the first time since 1979.
Where to start? The idea is that Edith (Alison Steadman) and Phil (Cleese) are near neighbours who have spent so much time together that, eventually, on the very day we happen to be introduced to them, they decide to cease pussyfooting around and tie the knot. Hurrah! Age is no barrier to romance etc. Then the doorbell rings, as doorbells always used to in suburban family sitcoms. And who should it be but Edith’s son Roger (Jason Watkins)? Roger is a child man who has decided to leave his neurotically nice wife Wendy and horrible teenage children and boomerang back to live with his old mum, under whose roof he will return to boyhood.
This is a weary exhumation of sitcom's more incontinent old tropes
Watkins is a brilliant comic actor who could make the phone directory funny, but Roger's extraordinarily dismal midlife crisis is beyond the reach of even his talent to amuse. The comedic climax of the episode found Roger attempting to avoid Wendy (Rosie Cavaliero) by clambering through a window and, like Pooh visiting Rabbit, getting stuck. There have been funnier plagues of locusts. The problem with Roger is that he is a gurning exaggeration, an unrecognisable gargoyle who barges in from a completely different script.
In the truest examples of the genre, comedy arises from a recognisable situation from which there is no escape. There is no character development, only eternal stasis. If the situation is funny enough, and the writing robust, it works. We remember the good ones but a lot of them were crap. Hold the Sunset pilfers the DNA of sundry sitcoms from the Jurassic era: As Time Goes By, Sorry, even a spot of One Foot in the Grave. What it doesn’t have, despite the presence of Cleese, is one jot of the manic genius of Fawlty Towers.
We first met Phil as he acidly lectured a neighbour (Peter Egan) about repeatedly allowing his dog to foul the base of a particular tree. This humourless overture (“the tree has lost its snap, crackle and pop”) left Cleese high and dry. Steadman, meanwhile, whose comic chops were so wonderfully exercised in Abigail’s Party and Gavin and Stacey, is wasted as a mumsy feed.
The writer is Charles McKeown, born in 1946 so familiar with the business of knocking on, but much of his scriptwriting thus far has been in collaboration with the zany mindscapes of Terry Gilliam - the wonderful Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, all of them a long way from gentle half-hour stints in suburbia. You can understand the rationale for commissioning Hold the Sunset. The average age of BBC One’s audience is 61. Middle England’s baby boomer demographic has a right to see itself reflected on screen, its hilarious confusions over recycling bins and ribtickling penchant for tea and homemade biscuits. But this is a weary exhumation of sitcom’s more incontinent old tropes. Probably it’ll be a massive hit.