Another Office Cloning Failure

The Evening Standard (London, England), February 23, 2006 | Go to article overview

Another Office Cloning Failure


Byline: VICTOR LEWIS-SMITH

The Armstrongs BBC2

ACCORDING to himself, the fearsomely heterosexual Peter Bazalgette "reinvented television" when he brought Big Brother to our screens (even though the format was actually devised by a Dutchman, John De Mol).

Bazalgette is constantly telling audiences at media festivals that "British television is better now than it's ever been".

So why do I regularly receive letters from readers lamenting that: "I've got more than 300 channels at home, yet last night there was nothing to watch."?

The reality is that most of the best programmes on British TV over recent years have been US imports (from Six Feet Under to Curb Your Enthusiasm), and that many of our own shows are modelled on American templates, from Jonathan Ross trying to be David Letterman to the various "reality" formats that were initially inspired by The Truman Show.

Indeed, this dubious copying is so pervasive nowadays that I'm calling on the Government to set up an official watchdog called Offrip to monitor TV output and issue regular reports, which (as with every other consumer-protection body) will be completely ignored by everybody.

Any ratings-friendly format inevitably suffers from an outbreak of cloning, as happened during the late Nineties, when the schedules were awash with character-based "reality docs" such as Maureen Rees in Driving School and Jeremy Spake in Airport.

Over the past few years, we've seen countless sitcoms trying to emulate the commercial success of The Office (although Offrip wishes to point out that its allegedly "groundbreaking" pseudo-documentary style was actually derived from People Like Us and The Larry Sanders Show), and these two strands have recently begun to converge into "reality com-doc" in series like Hotel On Sea and now The Armstrongs.

Shot in the real-life Coventry offices of the U-Fit double-glazing company, this new show follows the fortunes of owners John and Ann Armstrong, but whereas The Office's popularity derived from the comedy of embarrassment, this simply is an embarrassment.

And as I watched last night's debut episode, it was hard to decide who were the more unappealing: the staff at the company or the production team who were grimly determined to film and edit the workplace so that it resembled daily life at Wernham Hogg, unaware that a parody of a parody is never funny.

Using the full range of snide techniques available to unscrupulous media types (comic cutaways, sarcastic narration, everyday speech sliced into incomprehensible soundbites), the makers sneeringly presented the bosses as a couple of mouthy lower-class eccentrics.

But worse, Ann and John were well aware of what the production team wanted, and cheerfully spouted David Brent-style middle-management drivel for the cameras, resulting in a sort of inanity feedback loop that was neither believable nor amusing. …

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