It’s not been a good few months for BBC sitcoms. Aside from the abomination that was Amanda Holden’s Big Top, we had The Persuasionists, proof that no matter how talented and able a cast might be, nobody can rescue a bad script, plus Miranda, which certainly had lots of fans but could be definitely filed under “not for everyone”. This is not to say that there’s not been some great comedy recently on the BBC. Mock-doc Bellamy’s People has been excellent, showcasing the talents of the brilliant Robert Popper and Donna Harle as well as providing another chance for Paul Whitehouse to show off his flair for creating great comic characters. A lot of the great comedy has been hidden away, such as Tim Key’s sketch show Cowards on BBC Four, or the fantastic Limmy’s Show, which has only been shown on BBC Two Scotland.
Over the last week or so, two new sitcoms have been given an airing on BBC Three, the one-off pilot This is Jinsy and the first of a six part series of The Gemma Factor.
Surreal comedy often treads a very fine line. While the likes of Eddie Izzard, Reeves & Mortimer and Charlie Chuck are able to invoke seemingly random non sequiters to hillerious effect, many others have tried and failed. The BBC Three pilot This is Jinsy , a fun, low-budget sitcom set on an island community so eccentric and bizarre, it makes Royston Vasey look like Slough, just about manages to raise enough smiles and, in particular, has enough charm to deserve a return for a full series. Written, directed by and starring Chris Bran and Justin Chubb, and script edited by TV’s Emma Kennedy, This is Jinsy is by no means perfect, and certainly doesn’t reach the heights of its predessesor on the channel, The Mighty Boosh. The pilot’s story, about extending the “tessellators” (strange televisions/cameras throughout the island, like something from Orwell’s 1984) to the tribe-inhabited Old Jinsy was full of many more clichés than you’d expect from such an outlandish concept, and many of the plot developments and punchlines could be seen a mile off. But it still managed to win me over, thanks to Bran and Chubb’s affable performances, some fun songs and some very funny moments along the way.
On Tuesday night, BBC Three aired the first episode of the six-part series The Gemma Factor. About a 20-year-old from a small Yorkshire village who desperately dreams of being famous for being famous, I expected it to be dripping with irony. The subject matter, after all, is ripe for some very easy satirical pickings. It’s opening sequence, of Gemma skipping through the dreary village, spreading colour wherever she goes while singing a feelgood song seemed to be an ironic counterbalance to the cynical black comedy that I thought must surely follow. But, no. It’s like that all the way through, positive to the point of nausea, crammed with lazy, stereotypical characters and without a single funny line. There are rare glimpses at an attempt at satire, such as when Gemma wonders what the point of privacy is, but they fail to hit the target, and characters who try to make Gemma look at things in a more rational way, such as her friend Nell, are sidelined. Gwyneth Powell (Mrs McCluskey from Grange Hill) does put in a good turn as Gemma’s Nan, Anna Gilthorpe’s portrayal of ditsy Gemma is so sweet and full of optimism that it feels cruel to criticise the programme, and yes, of course there’s a place for upbeat, jovial comedy. The problem is that it feels like a Children’s BBC sitcom with knob gags, although that is perhaps being a little unkind to Big Cook and Little Cook. Who exactly was this aimed at? And what is the point it’s trying to make? If it is, as I suspect, attempting to satirise the current obsession with fame and celebrity at the expense of talent, then it fails entirely. This is probably the first and last time I’ll say the following sentence: Leigh Francis does it much, much better.