On 9th July 2001, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant wrote their names into comedy history when the pilot episode of The Office, a mockumentary about a Slough paper company, was first broadcast. The rest, as they say, is history. BAFTAs, Golden Globes, British Comedy Awards, not to mention a raft of remakes and a cultural influence that can be recognised in nearly every so-called ‘realist comedy’ made since.
However, this is not to say all British comedies should now be measured by the same yardstick as The Office in terms of its critical acclaim and mass appeal. For example, Beth & Emma Kilcoyne’s Roger and Val Have Just Got In, the second season of which finished last week, is unlikely to spawn versions all over the world. Yet, its beautifully observed blend of humour and poignancy, combined with two exceptional lead performances from Dawn French, also the show’s creator, and Alfred Molina, make it the best British sitcom since The Office.
For those uninitiated in the show, Roger & Val focuses on the hum-drum daily life of Roger and Val Stephenson in the half hour period after they both get in from work. Val is a food technology teacher and Roger is a botanist. Their life is quiet, uncomplicated, and their conversations are peppered with the kind of inane, inconsequential subjects that fill houses across the country. It’s observational comedy, essentially, but instead of it being a multi-millionaire stand up on stage at the 02 telling you how he can’t get his toaster to work properly either, it’s in a guise that’s completely recognisable. Gavin & Stacey’s humour works in a similar way, but where Gavin & Stacey’s jokes are highlighted and telegraphed, Roger & Val weaves its jokes into a natural tapestry of daily life.
This is not to say that the show is a thread of stand up material that’s been awkwardly crowbarred into a narrative - *cough* Not Going Out *cough – the drama here is as poignant as anything in recent memory, with the examination of a marriage rivalled perhaps only by Rob Brydon’s masterpiece Marion & Geoff. They say the best comedy comes when you’re one step away from tragedy, and this was certainly the case in the first series of Roger & Val, where throughout the 6 episodes we slowly find out that the couple were once parents, only to lose their son to a cot death. An unspeakable tragedy that in the hands of bad writers could become a cynical exploitative attempt at eking some tears out of its audience. Emma & Beth Kilcoyne are not bad writers. In fact, they are exceptional writers, who handle this topic with beauty and sensitivity. I can’t think of another work of fiction that does it better, and in fact the best comparison I can make is the song Day One by the fabulously underrated singer/songwriter Polly Paulusma, and indeed her entire second album Fingers & Thumbs...at this point, I should point out that the multiple references to cultural artefacts consisting of two words separated by an ampersand is purely coincidental!
It’s not just the writing though, as the writing wouldn’t be half as effective without Jamie Rafn behind the camera. It’s to Rafn’s credit that the show never feels stagey or theatrical, which given the heavy dialogue and one-set premise is always a risk. Nor is a fly-on-the-wall approach taken, in fact, everything is meticulously framed and composed, every shot beautifully set up with gentle artistic cinematography that can make a shot of Dawn French looking out a window look like a Vermeer painting. It’s all just so beautiful, and everything works together in helping you invest in this couple. We will them to succeed, to leap the hurdles that cross their path, to get to the finish line where we hope there will be some kind of pay off, and lo and behold, in last week’s series finale, in the final 10 seconds, Roger and Val ended in a wonderfully moving fashion, right up there with the climax of Blackadder Goes Forth or, again, Marion & Geoff.
Dawn French has been part of some incredible shows in her career; Murder Most Horrid, French & Saunders, Psychoville, all brilliant pieces of work, but Roger and Val is an utter masterpiece from the first frame to the last. You would be a fool not to seek it out on DVD.
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