Magazine article The Spectator

It's Grim Up North

Magazine article The Spectator

It's Grim Up North

Article excerpt

Television

Retro television is suddenly popular, at least with television executives. We have had The Forsyte Saga, University Challenge, Bill & Ben, Paul Merton as Tony Hancock, Ant and Dec returning as The Likely Lads and now Auf Wiedersehn, Pet has been resuscitated, and switched from ITV to a new home on BBC.

I suppose this is the people who run television getting nostalgic about their own viewing past. More old material will have to be flung into the hopper. Are You Being Served? will return with a cameo role for Mick Jagger as Young Mister Grace. Men Behaving Badly will star Ant and Dec, since everything does these days. There is no reason why the tribute show should wait till the original is over. Remakes of cult shows such as Black Books and The Office could overlap with the first versions, giving us the chance to compare the two directly.

Which I couldn't do with Auf Wiedersehn, Pet (BBC 1) because I never followed the original. So I watched with great interest. By golly, it's grim up north. Everything on Teesside looks awful. Everybody is awful. They're loathsome, odious, vile, demonstrating terminal viciousness tempered only by stupidity. The lads themselves are for the most part hideously ugly - think Jimmy Nail, Timothy Spall - though they are meant to be lovable scamps as well. This is not a term you would apply to the mobsters, human traffickers and crooked businessmen they encounter along life's journey. One hitman excuses his homicidal tendencies by saying he was a Tranmere Rovers supporter, always feeling overshadowed by Liverpool and Everton. ('Zo, I can understand ziss sense of impotence you are feeling. . . ') Kevin Whateley's character is indeed impotent, at least with his wife. And Timothy Spall, who has made it financially and so lives in a house even uglier than everyone else's, has a wife who has sex with a man who at least claims to be her brother.

These are not people you would want to spend much time with. The first episode of Auf Wiedersehn hammered The Forsyte Saga in the ratings, getting twice as many viewers as episode three of the costume drama. I'll be interested to learn if people switch back from the unremitting bleakness, the unrelenting misery of television drama compared to the comparative blandness of the real world.

Clement and La Fresnais always knew that the yucks had to be tempered by yocks, which they did masterfully in The Likely Lads, Porridge and their brilliant script for The Commitments. …

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