The dam has long since broken and the rapids of political correctness have long since diluted clever television to the point of saturated cringe in the new millennium, the bold and taboo news comedy shows of the likes of Brass Eye's and The Day Today's long since washed away into the estuary of English. It's as if all the things we all think are funny in our head aren't there any more. Television is no longer brave in the fear of offending a whole plethora of minorities and so we are caught up with banal eddies of sitcoms and whirlpools of puerile panel shows to try and suck us into submission, the God-awful sight of Christopher Biggings throwing us the comedy life belt the last thing we will see before we take our last breath. Tedious safe stand-up comics from Dublin and the Home Counties have taken over the terrestrial channels and with no risky gags in their little black books they spend their whole act slagging off other celebrities or waffling on about some bloke on the bus because they are not a minority or homosexual. The always excellent 'Have I Got News for You' bravely tries to keep the flag flying for smart telly for grown up's who can think, but that's pretty much the lot for the BBC, Radio Four the only other sanctuary for the thinking classes. So when Bellamey's People popped up I had hope all was not lost, a good old fashioned skit show with enough comedy pedigree in the cast to suggest an observational and subtle edge to its humor. I wasn't expecting great things from it but so far there has been enough here to make me giggle. It's no Day to Day but it's well written and parodied and has an appeal to a more erudite audience as well as a regular ITV one, Bellamy's People a stepping stone of hope over those banal rapids.
The show came about after the BBC gave the British comedy family tree a good old shake to see who's available, raking up what fell out and stuffed them into this joyous little parody of Britain today for an 8 part run, this rooted in the TV version of a spoof Radio 4 show, 'Down the Line, written by Charlie Higson and Paul Whitehouse, who provide the varied mix of old buffers, eccentrics and geezers on screen. Simon Day does the villains and hippies and to avoid any blacking up controversy excellent ethnic comics Felix Dexter and Asian stand up Adil Ray send up all the racial stereotypes. The comedy girls in the show are Lucy Montgomery, Amelia Bullmore, Rosie Cavaliero.
The basic premise of the show is fictional award winning journalist Gary Bellamy (Rhys Thomas), host of Radio 4's 'groundbreaking' phone-in program 'Down the Line', decides to take his show on the road as a TV presenter for "Bellamy's People (of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)".
Jumping in his rusty old Triumph Stag he zips around the country meeting the people of Britain and trying to find out what makes them tick. His aim is to extract their views on topics ranging from crime and social class to religion and culture, unwittingly the Daily Mail reader his target, the viewer recognizing something in these guys and girls in people they know. Much like his radio phone-in show, each week he will focus on a particular area of discussion, like immigration or gender, the mix of quintessentially British characters and locations his canvas.
Those characters are varied, including a 23-stone man who rarely leaves his bed but is on local radio shows speed dials for his views; a pair of aristocratic sisters with an unhealthy love of fascism; a barely reformed celebrity criminal; a right wing radio show host from Birmingham. But the show has ethnic characters too; Christians not the only ones up for lampoon as is always the case now, Muslims and black Africans also in the machine gun joke firing line, the funniest characters for me, white people allowed to chuckle away at ethnic stereotypes for once without feeling guilty, how our best mainstream ethnic comics make their money in the U.K. as its their only audience, whether they want to admit it or not. Felix Dexter's array of creations are hilarious, including the Black African, brief case carrying asylum seeker and his angry Caribbean, patois ranting self-styled community activist. The Muslim characters, played by the excellent Adil Ray, tries things we haven't seen before on screen, like the self style Islamic scholar that isn't anything of the sort and pretends to be a community leader in Leicester, and a rapper character that doesn't want to talk about terrorism but his music, but talks about terrorism anyway. There are loads of ethnic characters to enjoy and its great fun seeing them. Laughing at stereotypes is the only way people of all colors will ever bond.
The shows format is a slice of the Fast Show with back-to-back but unconnected sketches and also a bit of Harry & Paul thrown in there. There is also a lot of Saturday Night Live in the preachy nature of black and Asian characters. The constant cutting between the skits and characters serves no narrative purpose, resulting in the viewer feeling disconnected from them, unable to engage and get to know those characters, but the point being its done like that to avoid familiarity and so the character funnier when he or she returns later on. Some of the scenes are no more than mildly amusing, but others are funny and it's that momentum of getting to know the characters you like and the ones you don't like that makes this work.
I suppose the real appeal to this is the characters are three dimensional and very honest on the lifestyles they represent, even though they are obviously spoof ones. There's a lot of Higson and Whitehouse in these guys and girls and you can relate to them, especially Paul Whitehouse's working-class characters. Higsons well-to-do old buffers are a variation of the fast shows ones and it is fair to say the female comics in the show don't get the best roles. On the whole though it's funny enough for me to recommend and with its April release on DVD it would certainly make a great Fathers Day or birthday present for the old man. Let's just hope something else that actually has an opinion will follow soon on TV...