Ricky Gervais returns to our screens this month with the highly anticipated second series of Extras. It’s not only one of the best things he and writing partner Stephen Merchant have done, but one of the most astute satires on the trappings of minor fame and the nature of celebrity. Words Matt Pomroy
Vanessa Redgrave once said that ‘integrity is so perishable in the summer months of success,’ but it’s easy to say that when you’ve had six Academy Award nominations. She almost certainly didn’t have to don comedy glasses and wigs and see her work destroyed by BBC committee thinking. Maybe she did, but compromising your integrity and the axiom of being wary about what you wish for is played out perfectly in the second series of Extras.
Andy Millman (Ricky Gervais) has convinced the BBC to make his sitcom – When The Whistle Blows – but, like so many writer/performers, he’s seen the powers that be change it into a lowest common denominator sitcom that’s no longer his work.
When Millman stands up for himself during rehearsals and rants, ‘I want to do something that I’m proud of and I won’t be proud of shouting out stupid catchphrases in a wig and funny glasses,’ it’s a victorious and tender moment. But he’s soon crushed, and the acute embarrassment follows as he’s told by the BBC’s head of comedy that it’s this way or not at all.Faced with the prospect of returning to life as just an extra he’s forced to back down in front of the entire cast and do it their way. It’s a moment of painful failure that sets up the second series quite brilliantly.
The utterly soul-destroying process of wanting to be a success in your chosen field, but having to make so many compromises that the success you get is tarnished and torturous is perfectly played out here. When we see his bastardised sitcom being filmed in front of a live studio audience and he trots out the lame catchphrase he so fought against (‘Is he ’avin a laugh?’) the audience laugh loudly. Then we see audience members chortling heartedly while wearing T-shirts with the lame catchphrases from real television series: Peter Kay’s ‘Garlic Bread’, the terminally unfunny ‘Am I Bovvered?’ from The Catherine Tate Show and ‘I’m A Lady’ from the inexplicably popular Little Britain.
Catchphrase comedy is one of Gervais’ pet hates and this brilliantly rallies against the cheap laugh of catchphrases that have been draining television of originality for the last decade, while at the same time creating comedy of a far higher value himself. Millman finishes the scene and as he’s walking off set, he catches the eye of his best friend Maggie (Ashley Jensen) who’s sitting in the crowd and they share a perfect unspoken moment where both know the catchphrase and scene weren’t funny. Both of them know that it’s a dreadful sitcom and it’s not what he originally wrote for the BBC or what he wants to do. But at the same time, they both know he’s on TV at last and it’s work he can’t afford to turn down. They say that when the gods want to punish you they grant your dreams.
Hopefully having quality comedies like this will prick the egos of those who really do make sitcoms as bad as When The Whistle Blows or rely on catchphrases and lame jokes. But as Millman’s agent points out when trying to comfort him: ‘Don’t worry, people will watch anything, particularly if it’s on after EastEnders as they don’t have to change the channel. Those sorts of morons will help us win the ratings war.’
Along with the pathos and sheer embarrassment, there are some of the finest cameos we’ve seen in sitcoms. They’re not obvious and fawning like they were in something like Friends, because there’s no studio audience to whoop and holler as they walk on set. And they’re all prepared to send themselves up. Orlando Bloom having a chip on his shoulder about Johnny Depp and pestering Maggie about how he was voted best-looking male. You get Daniel Radcliffe brilliantly trying to distance himself from the Harry Potter image by swearing, pretending he smokes and trying to chat up all the women on set – ‘I’ve done it with a girl, intercourse wise.’
There’s 1980s presenter Keith Chegwin trying to act in Millman’s sitcom and being unable to stop standing out of shot or staring at the camera – then off film, going into a homophobic rant. Ronnie Corbett getting busted doing ‘a bit of whizz’ in the toilet cubical. David Bowie humiliating Millman in song while they’re in a private members’ bar and the continued presence of ‘Barry off EastEnders’ – the only other client Millman’s agent has – a real shining light.
Even when things appear to be going well for Millman and Maggie they see everything crumble with the kind of embarrassing laughs not mined so expertly since Curb Your Enthusiasm. When he complains about the noise a child makes in a restaurant only to discover it has Down’s syndrome, the media blow it all out of proportion and he’s forced to face all the bad press and downsides of minor celebrity while being famous for a sitcom nobody likes.
He only compounds this by accidentally getting into a fight with dwarf actor Warwick Davis, and we see clips of daytime television like The Right Stuff, This Morning and Richard & Judy discussing it, as if Millman was a real person, but even they are wonderfully in on the act of how ludicrous their media format has become. Fern Britton announcing that coming next on This Morning they have Rwanda revisited: ‘12 years after the genocide, a harrowing report from Big Brother 2 winner Brian Dowling’. It’s perfectly on the money, as is the insanity of Richard Madeley trying to see if the producer will organise a parade of people just to prove that he could recognise from behind which one was the ‘mongaloid’ is little short of genius.
At times it’s almost television deconstructed. Some of the jokes may well be lost on those who aren’t British, and of course it works better if you know the likes of Chegwin, Corbett and Barry from their original context, but even without an Anglo- centric TV knowledge it’s still the best thing on this month by a huge margin. Not just laugh-out-loud funny but astutely observed and further evidence that Gervais and Merchant are fast ascending to the comedy pantheon to join the likes of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais as all-time great British writers.•
For Time Out, May 2007
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