Monday 31 January 2011

Getting Arrested

Since the show started, I've always been a big fan of Lee Mack's BBC1 sitcom, Not Going Out. In fact, I was so keen that I pestered them to allow me to write for it. It never quite happened, although I ended up writing a storyline that they used in Series 3 called 'Speech', for which I am bizarrely credited as 'Additional Material'. If we definite a story is 'additional', we have some problems.

I pitched that story in particular because I wanted to give Lucy a strong story in which she could be really funny - a speech for a business awards-type thing would be a big deal for her charcter and something she would take very seriously. And therefore Lee would have take it seriously too in order to stand a chance with her. I'm not sure how successful I was in that, but since I merely submitted the storyline rather than wrote the episode - I wasn't even 'in the room' - I'm not sure what the other writers thought the story represented.

I remain a big fan of the show and I watched the show again the other night, catching up on the first episode - and laughed out loud, very loud, several times. But I was wondering why I still didn't love the show. In some ways, the show isn't dissimilar from Miranda, being big, brassy and silly. The show is also told from one character's point of view in which the character's name is the actor's name. Despite the similarities, Miranda seems to have invoked an affection that Not Going Out hasn't yet managed - although Not Going Out, being a BBC1 show, has the larger audience.

The missing ingredient is, I think, pathos. Dave Cohen has written an excellent piece on Chortle on this subject here. He is kinder to Not Going Out than me saying that Lee's "character’s attempts to win his flatmate evoke sympathy as well as laughs". That is right. But for me, this relationship and quest for Lee is never quite consistent enough. In the first episode of this latest series, Lucy is away for the whole episode, which removes that strand of pathos - and it became a farcical (in a good way) caper between Lee and Tim.

Lee and Tim are a really strong duo. They play off each other really well. But perhaps the drugs story might have had more resonance if Tim, playing very prudish and respectable, had a particular reason not to be caught in possession of drugs. Daisy's disapproval was funny and provided some character-based context for the story - and silly cartoon-ish ending involving a nail gun.

Getting Arrested
The 'getting caught' story crops up in many sitcoms, but for some reason getting caught by the police doesn't have enough comic punch. Being arrested isn't funny in itself. Being arrested by a child is funny. Or an ex-wife. Or a policeman who's arrested you nine times before is funny. There always has to be a reason why this particular arrest is funny. Or perhaps our character doesn't want to be arrested because his Uncle Tom is a magistrate. Or it means our hero will be asked to leave the golf club that he has finally been allowed to join. You get the idea.

Cue Music
But let's just end with more pathos for a moment. It can, and should, start with the opening music. Not Going Out has a brassy, upbeat opening theme, very much in keeping with the upbeat, gag-heavy nature of the show. Miranda has a lovely, cheerful theme too, by the splendid Alex Eckford - but Miranda has pictures of her growing up and we begin the theme of family embarrassment and we're already beginning to invest in her emotionally.

Some sitcoms, especially in the 1980s, ladelled on pathos with opening titles. So let's finish with a few of real humdingers, where pathos is positively gushing out of the television.
Here's Ever Decreasing Circles. Yes, this bizarre, complex piano solo really is the opening music for a mainstream, BBC1 comedy show.

How about this one? Hospital comedy, Only When I Laugh (can you imagine ITV1 commissioning this show, let alone allowing this opening sequence?):

And finally watch a man's life fall apart in the opening titles of the extraordinary Dear John:


  1. I love Tim Vine, I like Lee Mack and I don't know Lucy apart from her role in this, however, I have never been tempted to watch a whole episode of 'Not Going Out'. Not sure why, it just doesn't grab me. As with Milton Jones, I prefer my Tim Vine solo. As for pathos, 'Marion and Geoff' cannot be beaten.

  2. I keep meaning to write a blog post about the importance of opening titles. I've become a little bit obsessed about the subject.

    Joss Whedon says they can make or break a show, and I think he's right. The Buffy title sequence is perfect, and tells you exactly what you are watching. His equally good Firefly, has considerably less succesful titles, and subsequently got cancelled after 13 episodes.

    How do you approach title music for the radio James? Do you have a say in the matter? And do you think it's as important on the wireless?