In the final episode of Not Going Out’s third season, now out on DVD, the BBC1 sitcom lands a special guest star to play the lead character’s long lost father: Bobby Ball. It speaks a great deal about a programme that its creators would look to seventies teatime stalwarts Cannon and Ball as inspiration, let alone as a choice of guest star. Perhaps it is a comfort to some that this brand of bland, old-fashioned comedy still has a place in our television schedules amongst edgier, more modern fare like Peep Show or The Office. Such comforts do not make sitting through a whole season of cheap puns and cheeky put-downs while a BBC audience politely chuckles any more entertaining or any less exhausting.
At best, it’s a mixed bag. The show has a Seinfeld-y premise – a bunch of mates get into capers – and stars Lee Mack and Tim Vine, ostensibly playing versions of their stand up personas (as with many US sitcoms, they share their characters’ names). Mack is the cheeky northerner, Vine the posh bloke with the penchant for one-liners. On a stage each are a master of their craft. Within the confines of BBC1 primetime and its conventional three-wall multi-camera studio-audience setup, the humour is toned down, the madcap situations more implausible, the hit rate considerably lower and the groan rate considerably higher.
Occasionally they’ll strike gold with some rather deft wordplay – “He had a tough life – he had to go down the mine at 11.” “11? That’s a lie in!” – but for every decent line of dialogue, there’s ten lame ones, e.g., “You know that expression ‘be yourself’? Well, don’t.” The studio audience laugh, irritatingly obediently, even at such toe-curlingly vapid writing and hammy delivery.
That’s not to say it won’t please anyone – broad humour is broad for a reason, and the BBC has made an unusual U-turn in cancelling the show only to commission a fourth season, signalling that there must be a willing audience out there. But sitcoms of this genus seem almost unpalatable in a comedy landscape where shows like Peep Show and The Inbetweeners rule the roost. And Graham Linehan’s excellent The IT Crowd has proved that the old-school studio format can still work if the characters are strong, the plotlines clever and the jokes funny – a formula severely lacking here.
Not Going Out has a wealth of writing talent behind it who, like Mack and Vine, are wonderful, well-respected stand-ups, among them Simon Evans, Milton Jones and Andrew Collins. But they cannot bring to life a show which brings no spark to a tired old format, and which offers no unique reason why any potential viewer should not indeed go out, instead of watching this rubbish.
Conversely, the single DVD extra (aside from a trailer) is often funnier and more entertaining than most of the episodes on these two discs. A thirty minute behind-the-scenes look at the various locations shoots provides an interesting, laid-back look at the cast and crew’s habits. Unrestricted by their lame scripts, Mack and Vine show themselves to be a giggly, chummy pair who enjoy each other’s company. Mack in particular is hugely entertaining, letting loose with his quick-fire wit on all manner of targets in an effort to avoid boredom on set. Citing budget cuts and wielding a torch, he claims at one point “I have to do my own lighting.” You only wish they’d written a show as funny as this.