Over To Bill | TV review by Steve Bennett

Over To Bill

TV review by Steve Bennett

First episodes of sitcoms have always been notoriously difficult, needing to set up unfamiliar characters, established the ‘sit’ and set the tone, as well as getting the gags in… and that’s before you factor in the instant, extreme judgment of the twitterati quick to condemn a new-born show.

It makes it both a brave move for BBC One to revive its Comedy Playhouse season of pilots. But also a smart one, as the station tries to most elusive of creatures: the hit mainstream sitcom, while the trial nature of the shows is clearly flagged up. Before it vanished 40 year ago, the strand gave us Steptoe & Son, Porridge and Are You Being Served? – and of course countless best-forgotten episodes than never got picked up for a series.

The opening episode of the resurrected season, Over To Bill, will surely fall firmly in the latter category. For a strand designed to explore new ideas, this dated, over-familiar opener that seemed like a template mediocre sitcom, with very few ambitions.

Hugh Dennis – star of the genuinely good mainstream hit Outnumbered – played Bill Onion, a weatherman sacked to make way for a younger, sexier, and smarter weather girl and now needing to find a new job on TV. There are some echoes with Alan Partridge – and the show was co-produced by Steve Coogan’s company Baby Cow, but that’s where the similarities end. Rather than being driven by near-psychopathic desperation, like Partridge was, Onion is just mildly adrift.

In fact, he’s not specially motivated by anything; just a generally inept man, clumsily unthinking in his actions. The character has all the depth of the useless husband in a washing powder ad, as he leaves a valuable gift on the roof of his car before driving off.

His amiable friend Jez, played by Neil Morrissey, is no better, grappling to get an ironing board erected. And when Bill pays a visit to Jez's house he helps himself to delicate pastries, clearly meant for a special occasion. You’d have to be specially stupid or reckless to do that in real life, especially as Jez's wife-to-be is already set up as a stern battleaxe out to ostracise Onion, but the character is so thinly drawn by writer Doug Naylor (co-creator of Red Dwarf) as to have has no real thought process, he just does it.

The episode is themed around the couple’s wedding, and both the setting, and the core joke, is very familiar. Having improvised a last-minute petrol-station present to replace the one he left on the car, Onion switches the labels with another gift. With consequences that aren’t particularly hilarious.

What little comedy there is comes from Onion bumbling and getting into more trouble as he lies – badly – to dig his way out of it. The trope is as familiar as the setting, even if Naylor tries to make a clumsy joke out of the cliche, such as Onion trying to explain away a lie that his wife had ‘food poisoning’ by pretending it was an unlikely mishearing of ‘stew moistening’.

As a weatherman, Onion was bland, perfunctory and unsexy, and that’s true of this opener. Its failings only highlighted by being scheduled next to a documentary celebrating Comedy Playhouse’s impressive legacy.

Let’s hope for better things from next week’s Miller's Mountain, about a set of mountain rescue volunteers, or the third pilot, Monks, starring Seann Walsh as an unlikely new member of a monastery.

Review date: 30 Apr 2014
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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