The first episodes of Rob Grant’s historical sit-com were broadcast on the day of my nan’s funeral. I don’t know which event depressed me the most.
At the time, I thought it was utter shite from start to finish. Surely, I must have made a mistake. It was written by one half of the team that wrote the best radio show and the best sit-com ever. It was directed by Steve Bendelack, who had just done the first series of The League of Gentlemen and was produced by Red Dwarf VI‘s Justin Judd. There must have been some redeeming features. I got hold of a copy of the series to find out.
Well, it looks quite nice. They really capture the grotty nature of the period depicted, and the film effect adds to the feel of the show, rather than detracting from it, as it does in contemporary sit-coms. The costumes seem authentic, the props are realistic and the location is great – a working Anglo-Saxon village, similar to the western one used for Gunmen of the Apocalypse. So, from a technical point-of-view, Dark Ages is fine. Unfortunately, I’ve now listed almost all of the redeeming features.
Phill Jupitus is a stand-up comedian/impressionist. I realise that employing people with these backgrounds has worked in other sit-coms, but Jupitus can not act for toffee. His delivery is pantomime-like, with absolutely no subtlety whatsoever. His exagerated gestures and pitiful gurning detract from the realistic nature of the production values. Alistair McGowan isn’t much better, either. He plays the character of Thane Redwald with a lisp, that is as distracting as it is incomprehensible. Presumably, McGowan is only comfortable using a voice that isn’t his own.
Even Pauline McLynn is a bit crap. Whereas Mrs. Doyle benefitted from cartoon-like over-acting in the fantasy world of Craggy Island, the same technique applied for the part of Agnes is plain irritating. Jason Byrne is rubbish as the slave, Arland, as his delivery is far too slow, and as such is un-natural. And Sheridan Smith as Matilda is just plain forgettable.
In fairness, Paul Putner and Dave Lamb as Bigwart and Badsmith are quite good. In the first episode, Vile Vole Pie, Badsmith setting himself on fire is excellently performed, as is the preceeding section where he tries to locate the source of a bad smell, which is in fact his arse. Mike Hayley, who is no relation to the bloke who played Dennis in Coronation Street, is similarly great as Earl Bernarth, who is criminally under-used. His performance is genuinely creepy, and he provides a fantastic villain for the series.
So, it is clear that different actors should have been used for most of the parts. But this wouldn’t have helped the material. Though it pains me to say it, Rob Grant came up with a real stinker here. Most of the jokes are extraordinarily obvious, and most rely on mentioning body parts, and various afflictions that could bestow them. Once again, we see Rob Grant’s slightly disturbing side – each episode contains detailed accounts of torture and violence, similar to huge sections of his solo book Backwards, as well as a hell of a lot of Colony.
Rather than each episode having a distinctive beginning, middle and end structure and flowing from scene-to-scene, like Red Dwarf does, each scene in Dark Ages plays like a small sketch, with a big, usually predictable and unfunny, punchline at the end. We even get a little sting of silly music, just to remind us that we’re watching an ITV sit-com. Throughout the series, there are pretenses of continuous threads, but these are mostly forgotten in the middle episodes. For example, the Millenium Sphere (SATIRE) is mentioned at the beginning of episode two, Vikings, and then totally disregarded until the final episode, The End Of The World.
It is inevitable that a grotty, historical sit-com will be compared to The Black Adder, just as Red Dwarf was compared to Hitch-hikers. It’s lazy journalism, and I didn’t think I’d have to resort to it. However, whereas Rob and Doug never ripped off the work of Douglas Adams, you could suggest that Rob did so to that of Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson. Dark Ages opens with a narration explaining the situation, just as each episode of The Black Adder. Vikings contains a joke that is identical to one used in The Foretelling – “let’s build a Millenium Sphere”/”No, I have a better idea, let’s build a Millenium Sphere”, as opposed to “let’s nurse Henry Tudor back to health”/”No, I have a better idea, let’s nurse Henry Tudor back to health”. Worse still, Witch is merely a badly-written re-make of The Witchsmeller Pursuivant, right down to the exaggerated courtroom scene and the last-minute escape from the stake. Quite why a man of Rob Grant’s ability felt the need to do this, as well as being under the impression that nobody would notice, defies logic.
To sum up, Dark Ages is shite. Despite the excellent production values, by far the most ambitious thing ITV have done for some time, the acting was awful and the writing was abysmal. I hope Rob comes up with something excellent soon, otherwise his reputation will remain undeniably damaged.