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Skewering the BBC

30 May 2014

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HOW much licence do you give your jester? Setting up comedy is a dodgy business: your fool is supposed to make gentle fun of you, to show the world what a good sport you are - it is a way of enhancing your own reputation.

But if the clown has a completely free rein, and is master of insight, courage, and wit, then you might hear stuff that is as uncomfortable to you personally as it is hilarious to your chums.

Comedy has the valuable property of allowing you to engage with truths that are far too challenging to acknowledge seriously, offering the cathartic possibility of not just learning about yourself, but also actually changing. Hence the value of the parish pantomime, which, if given proper freedom, should draw the sting of every disastrous situation and initiative that overshadowed the previous year.

These solemn reflections (one of the paradoxes about humour is that it is not possible to discuss it without becoming ridiculously over-serious) are prompted by a surfeit of comedy programmes broadcast last week, which all variously drew their material from the medium that commissioned them.

By far the most significant was Harry and Paul's Story of the 2s (BBC2, Sunday), part of the 50th-anniversary celebration of the channel, in which Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse created a merciless send-up of its character and mores. Nothing was sacred: in the course of 60 minutes an astonishing number of favourite series, dramas, comedies - and also the political history of the BBC and its directors, producers, and personalities - were skewered, pinned down, and flayed.

The whole was cast as a Simon Schama documentary, the mannerisms, camera angles, and tracking shots faithfully captured. Parodies of I Claudius, Boys from the Blackstuff, The Office, Not the Nine O'Clock News, Talking Heads, and Dennis Potter - the range was extraordinary; Whitehouse and Enfield's script and impersonation of the highest order. It was a brilliant programme, conjuring up half a century of magnificent television, and simultaneously making us laugh out loud at it.

I have only just caught up with Episodes (BBC2, Wednesdays), a sitcom about a couple of British writers in the world of Hollywood sitcoms. This triumphantly proves that the United States can indeed, if only sporadically, "get" English comedy, and this particular transatlantic marriage works very well indeed.

The central delight is Matt LeBlanc, from Friends, demonstrating, by, as it were, showing us the workings, that the obnoxious halfwit persona that he was required to present was just that - a part of whose absurdity he was fully aware. I had always assumed that that was how he really was.

Cardinal Burns (Channel 4, Wednesdays) is a sketch show that mainly offers parodies of TV genres, but its protagonists do so with rare energy and conviction. I particularly enjoyed the appalling scenario, brilliantly realised, of the imbecile Best Men, who, their stag-night buffoonery having led to the death of the groom, simply used their excruciating wedding speech as his funeral eulogy.

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