Joking Apart II: The king of techno-farce returns

James Combes

What would you do if you were trapped under a bed whilst your ex-partner made love to their new partner on top? How would you explain being trapped naked in the flat of your new next-door neighbour? And, of course, what is the correct social etiquette to follow when you find that parts of your own genitalia are talking to you?

These are just a few of the issues that Steven Moffat attempts to address in series two of the superb nineties situation comedy Joking Apart, soon to be released by Replay DVD.

Moffat (Press Gang and Coupling) is now one of the most sought after script-writers on the BBC's books. In the past three years he has written four episodes of the revived Doctor Who  — two of which won a Hugo Award in 2005 - and last year's hit series Jekyll. He has come a long way since writing this series, but this is where his writing is at its most sublime.

Series two begins two-months after the closing scenes of series one and is consistently hilarious, if a little more absurd than the original run. The quality threshold is so high that it ought to be available on the NHS. After all, it is a well-known fact that laughter is a great healer  … and even the worst of Moffat's puns have less detrimental side-effects than Prozac.

Moffat is the master of the embarrassing situation. He hammers this point home continuously with the help of director Bob Spiers  — a man whose comedy CV includes both Fawlty Towers and Dad's Army.

Episode one - winner of the Bronze prize at the 1995 Montreux Festival - starts in fine fashion as Mark is caught buying dirty magazines by his wife, Becky, and their friends, Robert and Tracy.

Mark tries to explain his way around this but just digs himself further into the mire. He says  "I wrote an article for it", a comment which only a stupid person would believe. Thankfully there is always a stupid person handy in sit-com land. And when Tracy asks to see the article, the only chunk of text to be found is:  "She comes from Colchester and likes men with small bottoms."

The performances are spot-on. Robert Bathurst (Cold Feet, My Dad's the Prime Minister) is perfectly cast as the arrogant but suffering Mark Taylor, his desperation evident from the outset:

Mark: Becky was everything to me for six years of my life!! And suddenly I don't even know her address. Don't you understand how that feels? I used to know everything about her.

Bathurst is almost too convincing with Moffat's razor-sharp dialogue. But no sooner does the tension build than it is dissipated by a one-liner.

Fiona Gillies' (Peak Practice, Holby City) Becky is the perfect foil, able to be vulnerable, sexy, manipulative and inconsistent at the drop of a hat. When she promises to end Mark's life  "in the most excruciating manner conceivable over a period of several days" there is no room for doubt. And yet she still sounds sexy. The dialogue may be cutting, but that is why it is so good.

Moffat's love of  "techno-farce" is evident. This is the same as normal farce, but involves telephones, mobiles, answer-machines and television phone-ins. It is evident not only in Joking Apart, but also in a number of episodes of noughties sit-com, Coupling. But Joking Apart is where Moffat uses it best.

Stylistically, there are differences between series one and two. In series two the characters are already established and Moffat is able to get away with much more. The gritty realism of the first series is discarded in favour of full-blown farce and surrealism. This is no bad thing.

The criticisms are minor: episode two is so much darker in tone to any of the other episodes of the show that it seems somehow wrong. It is still funny, but less like an episode of Joking Apart and more like a Steven Moffat homage to Alfred Hitchcock  … with toilet humour.

Fiona Gillies is perhaps under-used. With Paul Raffield and Tracie Bennett's characters becoming more integral to the plots, she takes a back-seat in several episodes. This is unfortunate: an actress of her calibre should never be side-lined.

But it is a joy to watch support characters Tracy and Robert as they get their moment to shine. Raffield turns in a worryingly convincing performance as both a female impersonator and a howling dog, whilst Bennett steals Bathurst's thunder in the final episode, simultaneously playing two different characters on two phone-lines in an intricate plot involving a television phone-in.

As Moffat's finest example of telephone techno-farce builds momentum, more and more people are drawn into the cross-fire, and as the tears start to fall, the series builds to its surprising climax  …

With a DVD package that includes the original Comic Asides pilot from 1991, the full set of series two scripts in PDF format, and episode commentaries, Replay DVD have once again surpassed themselves.

So, even if you've never had a hallucination about talking genitalia or found yourself naked in a next-door neighbour's flat, buy Joking Apart. It's the cheapest form of alternative therapy available without prescription.

* Joking Apart Series II is available from Replay DVD from March 17th, 2008. Visit: for details