Robin Parker casts his eye over two of Channel 4’s latest comedies.

The Comic Strip: The Hunt for Tony Blair

Once the pioneering talents of ‘alternative’ comedy, The Comic Strip suffered from diminishing returns since they first exploded onto TV screens on Channel 4’s launch night. But a rest and a regroup has galvanised the team into one of their best films in years.

Where earlier classics GLC and Strike showed what would happen if Hollywood made a movie about British politics, here the framework is dispensed with and it goes straight to the movie.

With lush visuals and melodramatic acting all-round, viewers are presented with a ridiculously OTT take on the Blair years presented as a black-and-white noir-ish chase thriller in the mould of The Third Man and The 39 Steps – with a healthy dose of Sunset Boulevard thrown in for good measure.

Stephen Mangan has a ball as Blair, or rather a stiff theatrical actor voicing Blair’s clipped dialogue; not quite eclipsing Michael Sheen but certainly capturing his wide-eyed zeal. Pick of the original Comic Strip team is Nigel Planer who channels Peter Mandelson’s every facial and vocal tic and delivers some of the best lines.

Jennifer Saunders’ Margaret Thatcher is inspired too, played as Norma Desmond holed up in her mansion watching her old speeches on a loop via projector with a devoted Tebbit (John Sessions) at her beck and call.

Of the new breed, Ross Noble makes a winning cameo in his first acting role and there are strong turns from current C4 darling Morgana Robinson as Carol Caplin, Catherine Shepherd as Cherie and James Buckley as a Shakespeare-obsessed policeman (it being impossible to commission a C4 comedy right now without at least one Inbetweener).

Already it’s predictably led to the Daily Mail frothing at the mouth over its depiction of the ailing Thatcher as a senile has-been who jumps Blair, but it’s not much of a leap from Spitting Image to this.

More troubling to me is the flippant treatment of the deaths of John Smith and Robin Cook, particularly the latter as he is shown falling off a cliff. I’m not quite sure I buy Comic Strip overlord Peter Richardson’s defence that since both men are treated honourably elsewhere in the film – and that he ruled out David Kelly’s death “as it was too real and serious” – that this treatment is okay when events are still raw for their families.

And in a genre pastiche it’s a bit jarring to have references to real Blair era acts such as Oasis and Billy Bragg alongside a young Barbara Windsor and a smattering of early rock-and-roll hits.

But these are minor quibbles in a fun bit of lampooning, made with a real love of cinema. Commissioned as part of Channel 4’s ‘creative renewal’, it seems The Comic Strip has taken a leaf out of the same book. Roll on their next film, Five Go To Rehab.

Fresh Meat

Fresh Meat echoes The Comic Strip in combining established comic talents with some up-and-coming ones, but it’s a world away from the gleeful savagery of the Blair film.

Within moments, it’s recognisably the work of Peep Show’s Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong: University fresher Vod (Zawe Ashton) arrives at the house she’ll be sharing to encounter a man naked from the waist down preparing some Peking duck that he’s hung from the ceiling. It’s been a while, he says, since he’s spoken to anyone.

The horrors of flat-sharing depicted in their established sitcom are here taken into younger territory somewhere between The Inbetweeners and This Life: comedy, but with some heart and a more conventional dramatic narrative, as befits a co-production between Objective and Lime.

The rest of the series will introduce some newer writers and it’ll be interesting to see what direction they can take it in under Bain and Armstrong’s leadership. Like The Inbetweeners, this opener should appeal to current students and those who graduated a long time ago (and the choice of music, from MC5 to Public Enemy, was pleasingly non-contemporary).

The hour-long running time gives the cast time to bed in their characters. At 27, Joe Thomas has graduated from sixth-former to undergraduate and again plays the most everyman character of the bunch but Kingsley is just different enough from The Inbetweeners’ Simon and already looks set to benefit from a more emotionally-driven storyline.

Fresh Meat marks comedian Jack Whitehall’s debut acting performance but over-confident posh boy JP isn’t a million miles from his stage persona, while Scottish comic actor Greg McHugh steals every scene he’s in as the aforementioned established resident, Howard.

There are recognisable student archetypes in the three lead female characters as well, with Cranford’s Kimberley Nixon particularly strong as fresh-faced Josie.

C4 clearly has high hopes for Fresh Meat as a returnable character-driven comedy drama, but at times it feels more E4 and I hope that it doesn’t get too lost on the main channel.

The Comic Strip: The Hunt for Tony Blair

  • Commissioners: Shane Allen and Nerys Evans
  • Producer: Great Western Features
  • TX: tbc, October 2011

Fresh Meat

  • Commissioner: Camilla Campbell
  • Producers: Objective Productions and Lime Pictures
  • TX: tbc, September 2011

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