Why Didn't The BBC Get This Joke?

James Combes

Some comedies are unforgettable. Others provoke a mild titter and then disappear for ever. But every once in a while, one slips through the net, for no good reason, and achieves cult-like status in the process. Joking Apart is such a comedy.

Penned by Coupling's Stephen Moffat, this acerbic, bitter-sweet sitcom lasted for two series, won several awards, and was never heard of again which is a shame, as it one of the last, great comedy series to be produced by the BBC.

Each episode of Joking Apart is a three-act farce. But it does not follow the conventional rule-book for writing sitcoms. It starts at the end. An unhappy end. The break-up of the relationship, as Robert Bathurst's character utters the immortal line,  "My wife left me …" The action takes place in two time-frames, flitting back and forth from happier times in the past, to the painful present.

In the first episode, Mark turns up at a friend's party with a bottle of champagne in his hand. Here he meets Becky for the first time. But he has the wrong address and this is not a party. This is a funeral gathering.

In the present, a planned surprise birthday party for Becky goes horribly wrong. Her friends are hidden about the flat. She enters the room distraught, and announces that she wants a divorce.  "What do we ever do together, Mark? What friends do we have in common?" she says. Mark tries to dig his way out but makes matters worse.

Becky: You said Rod and Sally were about as interesting to talk to as table lamps.
Mark: Well, I talk to table lamps
Becky: Only when Rod and Sally are here.

Moffat's plots follow a circular path. The first episode begins with champagne. As the half-hour - and the marriage - comes to a close, Becky hands a bottle back to Mark. She says  "I think this is where I came in."

Robert Bathurst, best known for his performance in Cold Feet, turns in one of the finest performances of his career as the devastated script-writer, Mark Taylor. He manages to evoke sympathy and disapproval from the audience - often in the same scene. Fiona Gillies (Jeeves and Wooster, Peak Practice) plays his long suffering wife superbly. In the course of 30 minutes she is sexy, funny, exasperated, angry and manipulative.
Support comes in the form of Paul Raffield (Press Gang, Coronation Street) and Tracie Bennet (Coronation Street), who try to pick up the pieces of Mark and Becky's unravelling marriage, only to end up caught in the cross-fire. In the hands of lesser actors, Robert and Tracy could have been two-dimensional. Luckily, Moffat has armed them with plenty of superb dialogue.

In the second episode, their attempts at consoling Mark are well-meaning but not entirely successful.  "We're ever so proud that we know someone that writes for television," Tracy says, before adding,  "even if we don't know anybody who watches your programmes."

But don't expect an easy ride. This is not a happy romp like Moffat's Coupling. The script is often painful. Where Coupling remains up-beat and fluffy, Joking Apart has depth, pathos and pain. This is a dramatisation of the break-up of Moffat's first marriage - black comedy at its best.

Becky's line,  "I didn't sign on to be your lawfully wedded straight-man," has a resonance far deeper than anything Coupling has ever produced. And Mark's  "stand-up" routines contain some genuinely painful remarks. One galling scene sees Becky telling Mark about her new lover. She tells him that in different circumstances he would probably like him - he is a fan of Mark's writing.  "Did he have to sleep with my wife? Most people just write in," Mark retorts.

Joking Apart was directed by comedy legend Bob Spiers, a man responsible for more good television comedy than anyone else. His CV includes Fawlty Towers and Dad's Army. And in Joking Apart he has helped to create a comedy that does not date.

The brilliant mix of Stephen Moffat, Fiona Gillies and Robert Bathurst should be enough to entice any comedy fan. Bob Spiers is the icing on the cake. The BBC's comedy net may have let this show slip criminally into obscurity, but at least now Replay DVD's release has gone some way to righting that wrong. Miss it at your peril.

* Joking Apart is available from Replay DVD. Visit www.replaydvd.co.uk for details.