It seems that most new sitcoms should be given time to grow. Look back at early episodes of Blackadder and Dad’s Army for instance, and they don’t really compare to later series. Sometimes, it takes a while for the cast to gel, the writers to really know their characters, and the public to really take the programme to its heart. That’s why I have held off on casting my verdict over the BBC’s latest comedy, Hold the Sunset. Typically middle-class, it features a roster of fabulous actors that suggested it would be a sure-fire hit – Alison Steadman, Anne Reid, Jason Watkins, Joanne Scanlan, and John Cleese no less. The latter should be a mark of comedic quality. Surely he wouldn’t get involved otherwise. He has no need to. Then maybe Cleese sees something that I don’t. Maybe it’s got hidden potential, because though I waited for it to burst into life, it failed to hit any funny bones and, instead, went straight for the goodness of my heart. To that end, it never failed to crack a smile. But the laughs just didn’t come.
The premise is simple: a middle-aged man (Watkins) has a bit of a midlife crisis, leaving his wife and kids and moving back in with his mum (Steadman). For his mum, Edith, it comes at the most inconvenient time. She has just agreed to marry long-time neighbour Phil (Cleese) and jet off abroad to live in the sunnier climes of southern Europe. Yet all is put on hold as a result of Roger’s return. What ensues, across the course of six episodes, is a selection of oddball stories that give new meaning to the term ‘situational’ comedy. The situations in question are baffling to say the least, none more so than episode four’s ‘The Burglary’. It involves James Cosmo playing a one-armed ne’er-do-well who breaks into Edith’s house with the intention of getting caught. Things get a whole lot stranger when, it turns out, ‘Bob the Burglar’ is a long-forgotten flame of Edith’s. A coincidence or what? Frankly, I didn’t care. I was simply baffled, particularly by the fact that, somehow, Bob then manages to become a regular character in the series. If things couldn’t get anymore unusual, Bob is the trigger for a two-episode narrative in which Roger attempts to trick the authorities into believing that he is a carer for his mum. The assessor who comes to call in the final episode is played by the wonderful Alexandra Roache (Utopia, Accused). Again, I ask, how can this series not be funny when it’s attracting such a great cast? One things for certain, the quality of the cast is the only reason why this series doesn’t fall flat on its face. Such weak story arcs would simply crumble into pure ridicule if it wasn’t for the solid and reliable structure of Watkins et al.
One must at least give writer Charles McKeown credit for creating likeable characters. The cast do a brilliant job of bringing his creations to life. Watkins is excellent at portraying the childish petulance of Roger. Steadman is solid and reliable as his no nonsense, slightly fussy mother. Anne Reid brings a positively barmy edge to the cleaner Mrs Gale, whilst also maintaining a level of authenticity that stops her becoming a mere caricature. And Cleese brings a certain class to the well-dressed, lightly mocking character of Phil. It is the fairly rounded nature of these characters that has allowed me to at least raise a smile and quietly enjoy their company for half an hour each Sunday evening. It is just a shame that such a smile never turned into a laugh, particularly given its billing as a sitcom. Perhaps, in this instance, Hold the Sunset may have benefited from a live audience. The realist approach didn’t quite fit with its eccentric nature.
For all its flaws, I can’t help but feel that Hold the Sunset will get a second series. Its ability to raise a smile will probably count for something. It makes a change from the hard-hitting, tear-inducing storylines of Call the Midwife that we’ve recently been exposed to at any rate. If it does, I hope that McKeown can come up with some better stories. Dig into the My Family archives, if need be, for some inspiration. He has a great cast that deserve better, and will turn this into a real gem if he can. And if it doesn’t, well, I can’t say I’ll be too disappointed.
So, over to you BBC comedy commissioners. Will you hold the sunset on Hold the Sunset?