Buns in the oven and bodies on the slab

Sat, Sep 1, 2012, 01:00

RESTAURANT CRITICS don’t book tables on opening night, theatre critics don’t sneak into rehearsals and I feel pretty much the same about pilot shows. Not that we get to see too many of them. They’re usually made for hawking around broadcasters and potential financiers, so that by the time the real series is made, and fit for viewing, the glitches have been ironed out.

In The Takeover (RTÉ Two, Thursday), a pilot for a reality show being shown in the broadcaster’s Format Farm strand, it wasn’t the repetition that was the problem – although there’s only so many times you can hear variations on “we’re all doomed if this fails” without reaching for the remote and bashing yourself on the head with it. Nor was it the length (a very long hour) or the lack of a sparky main character (reality TV needs someone to step up and be the star). No, it was the soul-sapping concept with the whiff of exploitation.

The big idea is to take a company that’s in trouble and to follow what happens when the bosses take two weeks off, leaving the day-to-day decisionmaking to the employees, to see if any of their bright ideas can turn things around.

The pilot was about Tea Time Express, a long-established brand now in difficulty. Its cake bakers, some of whom had worked there for more than 30 years, had been on a three-day week since Christmas and were worried that the company was about to close. And maybe it was the high stakes that made this an uneasy fit for a bit of light entertainment of a Thursday night – that and the way every scene felt rehearsed and plotted.

The workers decided cupcakes were the way out of their difficulties. “After this amount of time what do we hear? Cupcakes. Mother of God, it’s ridiculous,” harrumphed John Sherry, the company’s chief executive, who later, after the workers bagged some orders for their new line, admitted he was wrong. Though you’d have to wonder what he was doing not to have copped already that jumped-up fairy cakes are the bun of choice these days.

So, helped by the businesswoman and Dragon’s Den mentor Norah Casey, and after several scenes where the staff humiliated themselves on TV – one in which two bakers made a sales pitches to a patronising prospective client was particularly cruel – earned enough orders to put the firm back on track.

But did they really? There was an inescapable sense that we were not getting the full story, and how can you talk about a company’s survival without once mentioning its finances?

Format Farm is RTÉ’s big idea for the autumn. The station is part-financing The Takeover and four other pilots to see if their formats can be sold to other markets – which can be very lucrative. But I’m not sure if viewers should be subjected to such half-baked – sorry, it was inevitable – programmes. I’ll happily eat my words, or a slice of Tea Time Express coffee cake, if this format sells.

THE CHALLENGE IN watching A Touch of Cloth (Sky1, Sunday and Monday), the hilarious spoof detective drama written by Charlie Brooker and Daniel Maier (of Harry Hill’s TV Burp) was trying to keep up with the one-liners, slapstick, sight gags and daft wordplay. It was like being machine-gunned with gags.

TV crime drama, every new season of which ratchets up the gore, dysfunction and bonkers sleuthing, is ripe for spoofing. A Touch of Cloth referenced the lot, with John Hannah as the emotionally damaged, recently bereaved detective whose backstory is told in grainy flashbacks and framed newspapers in his office: “Local Cop Addicted to News Clippings.” Suranne Jones was Cloth’s sidekick, Det Oldman, a beautiful lesbian with relationship troubles – “I’m a bi DC, or AC/DC DC” – and the pair played the straight man for each other: “I haven’t laughed since my wife died;” “Why did you laugh when your wife died?” Or, “The coroner called from the mortuary, said it’s big;” “I know it is. I’ve been there.” And on and on, a bit relentlessly.

All the crime-drama tropes were there: the beautiful coroner, her beardy assistant eating his lunch in the background (a bit falls into a cadaver), crime-scene tape around just about everything and corny dialogue delivered with grim urgency. “He went shopping at the pet shop. Any leads?” “No, just some pet food and stuff.”

Monday’s second part felt overworked and drawn out – the laugh can only stretch so far – though it made me want to rent Airplane: so much of A Touch of Cloth seemed in homage to it.

MORE SPOOFERY IN Bad Sugar (Channel 4, Sunday), this time of those genteel melodramas with their assignations in the shrubbery and murderous butlers. It starred three superb female comics: Sharon Horgan – how great is she in everything? – was a social-climbing newly-wed who marries the heir of a mining family without quite realising he’s gay; Olivia Coleman played the sweet trusting daughter; and Julia Davis was the scheming daughter, plotting about her father’s will. It was silly, spectacularly filthy in places – no character in Miss Marple has ever pushed a vicar to the ground and stood over him so he could check if she was wearing knickers – and mostly funny, but those blousy English dramas with warring siblings, mumbling vicars and closeted sons don’t really stand up to heavy-handed spoofing, as they’re often so unintentionally camp and funny. Bad Sugar laid it on thick.

JIMMY McGOVERN can always wipe the smile off your face. This week’s instalment of Accused (BBC One, Tuesday) – the dramas about ordinary people in court – starred Robert Sheehan as a fragile teenager whose mother’s death triggered an episode of severe mental illness. In one scene, watching Newsnight, he hears Alastair Campbell warning him about his dad’s new girlfriend.

Sheehan’s performance in his superbly written part was compelling, but then, as in others in this four-drama series, the last five minutes let the whole thing down. This one ended with a hokey twist reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It was corny and undermined the performances and plot that had gone before. I won’t spoil it if you have recorded it – and do watch it for Sheehan – but switch off as he’s sentenced. It won’t be what McGovern intended, but it’s a far more satisfactory experience.


Get stuck into...

Six months behind the scenes in the office of Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn (right): Yes, Minister or The Thick of It? Or filtered through the dead hand of officialdom? Inside the Department (RTÉ One, Monday)

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