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The Book Group

Friday, January 24, 2003 by

The golden rule in our house is that you must watch an entire series before even considering condemning it. Sometimes this rule proves to be a blessing; on other occasions a damned curse. And I should have known so much better than to switch back on to The Book Group again. The first run of this show left the Better Half and I in a state of agitated flux and we viewed its return facing the possibility of a most heinous proposition – surely it was impossible to further besmirch the good name of comedy/drama-comedy/black humour* (*delete as appropriate)? Oh hell, yes it was. And then some.

Populated by cartoon buffoon-by-numbers stereotypes and written with an innate sense of not being nearly half as clever as it thinks it is, this was the most bitterly disappointing slice of comedy to appear on television on recent years. Underpinned by the laziest writing and, to be brutally frank, one dimensional characterization that it is surely possible to witness, this lumbered and wheezed its way back onto the schedules for another run.

The further fleshing out and – ahem – maturation of the characters (micturation is nearer the mark) serves only to underline the self-evident fact that sometimes what looks good on paper may not necessarily translate to the small screen. Every aspect of the show seems to be based on supposition rather than observation, on rhetoric rather than instinct and on clich√© rather than nature. The relationships twixt the characters are sometimes pained, often cloying and always forced. This stilted comedy of manners lacks a framework around which to dress itself and, subsequently, has the feel and look of a second-rate sketch show to it. It further lacks a natural sense of pace to arrest the viewers’ interest let alone seduce them.

Some of the characters are so jaw-droppingly asinine and pathetic as to render their point null and void, with the character of Lachlan being the most striking example. Lines such as “Can I rub oil on your perineum?” and “Do you feel any engorgement?” were surely stolen straight out of Ben Elton’s Saturday Night Live shiny-suited schtick of oh-so long ago as well as being the staple of almost every First Year University revue to have ever graced the Fringe. I couldn’t believe just how banal and unoriginal the dialogue was. The poetry spouting Spaniard only served to move it from bad to verse. Sorry.

Thus, the characters’ own journeys within the show become uninterestingly redundant. Without any endearing traits and without personality, this odd group of soulless misanthropes became no more than a hapless cluster of people who inhabit each other’s space and occasionally interrelate to no great effect. Which is ironically reminiscent of real life yet somehow simultaneously it bears no reasonable likeness to reality.

When words and phrases such as “dark”, “odd” and “quietly surreal” are thrown at a show it is time to sit up, take notice and evaluate. Personally, I’d use “unfunny”, “badly observed” and “tiresome” – no, make that last one “irksome”. The concept of The Book Group when pitched to Channel 4 must have ticked all the right boxes of right-on comedic expediency – regional, disabled, literate and gay. Yet it serves none of these groups to any great degree other than to reheat the same lazy old stereotypes we’ve yawned at all too often before. If comedy could be written from a ¬£4.99 book from Bargain Books bin-end bargain bucket, then this is unquestionably what it would look like.

Yet this programme is not without its’ redeeming features. It has a break in the middle and only lasts around 23 minutes. More than enough time to run to your room and engorge your partners’ well-oiled perineum I’d say. And infinitely more fun. Bottle of extra virgin olive oil, anyone?

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