Magazine article The Spectator

Knowing When It's Time to Go

Magazine article The Spectator

Knowing When It's Time to Go

Article excerpt

Television Knowing when it's time to go

Watching an old and much-loved television programme die is like seeing the same thing happen to a favourite pet - the inevitability makes it no less sad. Take The Story of Absolutely Fabulous (BBC1), a well-assembled history of what was once a great, life-enhancing comedy and is now a self-indulgent pile of pap. Comedy isn't like sport, a constant striving to do the same thing only more so. It's about balance, judgment and self-discipline. The more a show is about people who are out of control, the more controlled it must be. Basil Fawlty lashing his car with a tree branch is funny because the mania has been tied down and assembled as tightly as the spark plugs on a Bentley. Edina falling down the stairs for the 278th time isn't. I watched The Story and mourned what Ab Fab used to be.

It's a cliche, but like many cliches perfectly true, that Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant were right to end The Office (BBC1) when they did. Because it was the last show, they were able to plant the notion of the series' death at the very end, when Dawn realised at last that she loved Tim and - far more improbably - Brent found an attractive, intelligent woman who appeared to like him. Since everyone in The Office led a life of quiet, and sometimes noisy, desperation, we realised a wrong note had been struck even as we watched Dawn and Tim blissfully nuzzling each other at the office party. How could they have continued? Dawn and Tim have a happy family life in Slough, while she becomes a successful illustrator and he gets a teaching job at the University of East Berkshire? You might as well have Jude the Obscure discover his children weren't dead after all.

There were many joys in The Office. Because each shot was composed with a perfect eye for detail, you can always find something more in each of the endless repeats. At the office party in the second episode last week, we could see the massive out-of-focus figure of Keith lowering in the background to many of the most stomach-churning scenes, like some baleful, omniscient yet stupid god. And because all the characters remained perfectly in character throughout, some of the funniest lines were only funny in context. Gareth's 'enough of this tomfoolery' was hilarious because you knew the only tomfool around was Gareth. Or Neil, exasperatedly telling Brent to stop haunting the place: 'You can't come in for a natter.? 'Well, can I come in for a meeting?'

It's a measure of Gervais and Merchant's apparently limitless comic invention that they even produced a new character for the final fling: the appalling Anne. …

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