“One day I shall come back. Yes, I shall come back. Until then, there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties. Just go forward in all your beliefs and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine.” ― William Hartnell
There is a key to knowing when to stop making a show. The British are very good for not running an idea into the ground before they stop making them, look at Fawlty Towers, Black Books, and other sitcoms like it and they very rarely go past the 4th series. But what is more difficult to work out is when to bring a show back. Do you work it out based on the time difference, on audience demand, on the channels orders? Today I shall be looking at two shows that have come back this week, one because of time, the other because…I’m actually not sure why.
Firstly, The League of Gentlemen’s new 3-episode anniversary special that took us back to Royston Vasey, and then I’ll be looking at the latest series of The Grand Tour, or Top Gear minus the awkward punching of crew members.
The League of Gentlemen are Steve Pemberton, Reece Shearsmith, Mark Gatiss and Jeremy Dyson, with the first 3 starring and Dyson writing a good bulk of the show. They started out at Edinburgh Fringe, where they won fucking everything, before being commissioned to make a radio series, ‘On the Town with The League of Gentlemen’, introducing to the town of Spent, and all the weird and eccentric characters that it contained, from a radio DJ who only played thrash metal, a maniacal restart officer, and a terribly theatre company with a director who hates lesbians. It was a level of dark humour that the radio hadn’t heard for quite a while, and successful enough that they were asked to bring it to Television. The location changed from Spent to Royston Vasey, Roy Chubby Brown’s real name, and the stories got darker, and the characters more twisted. It was surreal, short lived, and perfect. 18 episodes and a Christmas special, with a non-canon movie released in 2002.
And then, this year, it came back. And it was darker, more twisted, and had all the charm and love of the original. The writing felt modern, and the plots had moved with the times. There were nods to the original series the whole way through, not just with the characters they used but also with the background gags that you really had to pay attention to catch, as well as references from Doctor Who (Gatiss, you naughty boy) to BrassEye.
The Story revolves around the death of Royston Vasey, as border changes have meant that the town will no longer exist and will be absorbed into other district including the aptly named Brownbottom. While this is going on, we are reunited with Benjamin, the audience surrogate of the original series, trapped in a twisted town by his toad obsessed uncle and aunty who he was visiting, as he’s come back to attend his uncle’s funeral. From here on in, it is pure League of Gentlemen. With Pauline, the restart officer making a brief, and heart-breaking return, Mickey, her simple but utterly devoted husband shares a similar fate – his appearance is short but beautiful. Mark Gatiss is probably my highlight in episode 2, where he gets to show off his acting with, oh look, another gut tightening sad monologue of love and loss.
The winners of this brief return are of course Tubbs and Edward, owners of the ‘local shop for local people’, who have recovered well from being hit full speed by a locomotive, and since their shop has been burnt down, are shackled up in a condemned block of flats. After taking a couple of hostages, they fully embrace their return and turn the horrors they commit up to eleven, all with charm and idiocy. David Morrissey turns up to move the plot along as a hostage negotiator, and uncovers their crimes.
The whole thing ends with one final characters returning, for they are the cause of all the issues and problems in Royston Vasey, and all for a very specific and sick purpose. Their reveal made our group watching cry out in happiness.
The reboot isn’t quite perfect – the comic nudity wears thin in the first episode, and some of the skits seem to be more aimed at the audience as a wink and nudge. Edward and Tubbs seem to come across more as a thinly veiled metaphor for Brexit, with their lies, deviousness, and demands to get the Local World back for the Local People. But the heart is back, and the charm too, surprisingly for such a dark and twisted team. And as they say as Benjamin departs at the end of episode 3, leaving Royston Vasey and his family behind, “you can’t go back, but you can always visit”. It was a fitting end for such a genuinely strong and twisted return.
Equally twisted, with hideous exaggerated characters that are extremes of the people you’d find in a rural village, The Grand Tour returned this past week, and it was as okay as I expected.
Top Gear ran on the BBC for what seemed like forever, and despite the off scandal and massively xenophobic remark by Clarkson’s character, and it is very much a character as in every interview he’s given personally he comes across as a bright and witty man, not the racist imbecile he pretends to be, the show was enjoyable. It got a bit silly by the end, when the car journalism came second to hijinks and viral car tasks, but it always had a sense of heart and charm. So, when the show was so abruptly ended by Clarkson punching a producer (okay, so he’s a bright and witty man, albeit a violent shit) the public show of affection for the show was understandable, so it made sense that Amazon bought the three hosts and would start their own copycat. Such a shame then that it’s terrible.
Terrible may be too harsh a word, but what it is not is enjoyable. Series 1 of The Grand Tour was okay, it was very much the hosts and producers experimenting with the new budget they had and playing with new ideas whilst trying to keep the show similar to Top Gear as they could legally. It felt a bit disjointed, akin to the BBCs similar struggles with their new Top Gear series, but had some laughs along the way and the same controversy – such as Richard Hammond for some reason deciding that for a man to eat Ice Cream meant he was gay. Yep, he said that.
Season 2, with more money to play with, and it should be all clicking together. However, so far it feels fake, like a badly scripted stoner comedy where the 3 main characters are 2 OAPs and their middle-aged nephew, heading on a European tour for a stag-do. Clarkson has made his character louder, more brash, yet while still trying to be the voice of middle England (the past). James May looks ever sadder, the most brilliant of the three as his BBC show The Reassembler showed, but he’s never given chance to show off his wit and charm, and is almost an afterthought a lot of the time, except for when he’s the butt of everyone’s jokes. Richard Hammond is the genuinely offensive one, as I no longer believe that he’s playing a character. His faux-rural sentiments come across as dated, and as hard as he tries to be pretended to be modern, he will no doubt come out with some horrendous phrase mocking someone. He also is becoming more famous for his crashes than his charm, which is suddenly lacking.
The challenges themselves seem to be fake. In the first episode, they spend time in Switzerland with 3 supercars to see which is best, standard fair for these guys. But they spend nearly half an hour first mocking electric cars and their drivers as boring health freaks who go to museums in a series of pre-written skits that are so forced it’s painful. Throughout all of this section, Clarkson looks fed up, May is genuinely interested in the museums because that’s the sort of man he is, and Hammond is forced to put on a fixed, bemused smile because that’s the character he’s playing this week. And then when they do get to play with the cars properly, it’s a joy because it’s the three doing what they do best, riff off each other and play around with the engineering, laughing at each other and quietly bickering.
If they focussed more on what made Top Gear great, the natural interaction of 3 blokes as they played about and did silly things, rather than trying to manufacture entertaining scenarios for them to be placed in and improv around, it would be a lot more enjoyable. The BBC show had its problems, as by the end they were equally guilty of manufacturing situations and reactions, looking for the entertainment edge rather than the factual information, but it always had the charm and warmth. Amazon’s The Grand Tour feels like the Belgian hotel room I stayed in when I visited Ypres – very clean and well-polished, but without a soul.