One of the biggest downsides of the Red Dwarf Movie’s ten year development hell is that British comedy was robbed of one of its most unique voices for an entire decade. Even after Dwarf‘s triumphant return to our screens, it’s still been nearly 20 years since we’ve seen anything written by Doug Naylor that doesn’t contain those familiar four characters flying around in one of three spaceships. So now it’s over to Over To Bill to see if the man who co-created one of the greatest sit-coms of all time can still conjure up compelling new characters and exciting fresh scenarios, in this one-off comedy drama.
Bill Onion is a weatherman, although that’s not very important after the first two minutes. He unexpectedly gets sacked for being a bit old hat, although that’s not very important either. He’s trying to secure a meeting with a bloke at Channel 4 so he can get a new job, but that’s so unimportant that you wonder why it’s even there. Despite the synopsis – and indeed the title – the specifics of Hugh Dennis’s character are strangely irrelevant to the plot, which consists of Bill getting into a series of farcical scrapes in an attempt to prevent his best mate Jez from being forced to ostracise him by his evil fiancee.
OK, here’s the first hurdle. The criticism that Grant and/or Naylor can’t write for women has become a bit of a running joke, but it becomes a real issue when two of the four leading characters in a brand new sit-com are one-dimensional, unrealistic stereotypes. The notion of womenfolk “culling” their partner’s friends was out-dated enough in Duct Soup seventeen years ago, and it’s certainly no better here. Doug has fallen into one of the most common clichés of female comedy characters, by creating two women who only exist to nag at the funny men and disapprove of whatever they’re doing. Why can’t the women be just as crazy, flawed or stupid as the men?
It’s a tired old dynamic, and here it means that half of the core characters are totally unlikeable. We’re introduced to Bill’s wife Faith by having her mocking him for having been fired, and throughout the show she does nothing but pour scorn and anger over Bill’s astonished face. As we’re supposed to be on Bill’s side throughout, this just means we end up hating his wife. And the less said about Jez’s partner Selina the better. So shallow and detestable; she’s like a hateful parody of womankind. Why would Jez even want to marry her if she’s going to completely ruin his life? Not all women are like that in the real world – only in poorly-thought-out sit-coms.
For what it’s worth, Tracy-Ann Oberman and Helen George don’t do a bad job. They have very little depth to work with, but they do the best they can. Hugh Dennis and Neil Morrissey are great throughout. Dennis is a steady pair of hands, with his role in Outnumbered having helped him corner the market for slightly downtrodden and exasperated-with-the-world middle-aged everymen. And it’s good to see Neil Morrissey back in comedy after years of tabloid shenanigans and animated builders. He brings an air of warmth and likeability to the role of Jez, and the pair make a good on-screen partnership.
Back to the plot. When it’s done right, farce can produce brilliant, memorable and hilarious comedy, but it requires tight plotting, consistent characterisation and a believable level of escalation. Unfortunately, Over To Bill has none of these things. All too often, the situations rely on someone behaving utterly unrealistically in order to create conflict, such as Bill eating the clearly expensive-looking pastries, or not noticing that he’d left his present on the roof of the car, or Jez not realising that Bill had obviously swapped presents with Selina’s best friend, even though he’d been with Bill when he bought the original gift. Not to mention the fact that all the stuff about bone marrow transplants is complete bollocks – that’s not even close to what the procedure entails.
Worse still, these situations are exacerbated by the characters behaving incredibly stupidly and inhumanly, with their actions being dictated entirely by the plot and not common sense. Why doesn’t Bill just tell Jez and Selina that he accidentally lost their present but he’ll buy a new one as soon as possible? Yes, when characters act like complete idiots it helps the plot to progress, but it does so at the cost of alienating and aggravating the audience. The great characters of farce are never stupid – they often come up with ingenious ways to wriggle out of situations, only to be foiled by other people, unexpected consequences or pure bad luck. How are we supposed to feel empathy for these characters when their downfall is entirely their own fault?
Another problem with the show is the pacing. It really drags at times, and it felt like there wasn’t quite enough plot to fill out half an hour. This leads to several infuriating sections in which Neil Morrissey simply reiterates things that the audience already know, repeating the same phrases over and over again. There’s no need for the audience to see someone being told a story if they’ve already seen the story unfold. The repeated phrases thing is a trope that Doug uses several times in Red Dwarf X, where it’s aided by being rooted to established characters and by the atmosphere of the studio audience, but it just doesn’t work here.
Speaking of which, a quick word about the style of the show. I’m no evangelist for traditional three-wall four-camera sitcoms, and the likes of Peep Show and Friday Night Dinner prove that character-based farce can work brilliantly as single-camera productions. But Over To Bill lacks the energy of those two examples, and I can’t rule out the possibility that the single-camera style contributes to the lack of atmosphere throughout. Having said that, it’s well-shot and well-directed, with a good mix of sumptuous exterior shots and lovely big comedy close-ups that have sometimes been lacking in Doug’s directorial efforts. It looks marvellous in HD too.
But crucially, though, as this is a sit-com – is it funny? Not enough, I’d say. There are some good gags for sure, the highlights being “what was wrong with good old-fashioned iPads?”, and the shot of the Jim Davidson stand-up tape in amongst a crappy petrol station gift selection. But the big farcical sections, that should have provided the biggest laughs, are more cringeworthy than comedic. There’s a very fine line between the two, but when the audience is so far ahead of the characters – as we were the very second Bill put the present on top of the car, or when he picked out the only expensive-looking thing in the entire fridge – it strays into annoying and uncomfortable. You’re willing the show to catch up with something you’ve already figured out, as there are no laughs there to distract you.
Overall then, a frustrating and disappointing half an hour, which fails to live up to the pedigree of the writer or the quality of the cast. It was only a pilot, which suggests that there’s scope for problems to be ironed out if it makes it to a full series. This would require much, much tighter scripts, a great deal more inventiveness and a complete and total reworking of two of the four main characters. Despite the disappointment of the pilot, I’d very much like to see this happen, as I believe that Doug could do a lot better with this cast, and with a platform as big as BBC One. If, on the other hand, I wasn’t aware of Doug’s genius, and were judging the project purely on the basis of this half-hour of television, then sadly I’d be dismissing Over To Bill as a complete dud, which isn’t worth attempting to rescue. Please Doug – if you’re given another chance, prove me wrong.