The Wrong Mans: James Corden laughing in the face of danger

“You know that what danger doesn’t do is call ahead . . . unless it’s the IRA.”

Can James Corden do it all over again? Image: Getty
 
What makes good television, in the end, often comes down to tone. Everything can be in place –writer, plot, cast, production values – but if the tone of the thing is uneven, careering all over the place like a girl in heels who’s had one too many negronis, then it’s probably sunk from the off.
 
The irony is that more and more television writers lately are turning out these weird hybrids – comedy dramas, mainly –which by their nature are almost certain to be uneven. Why? I’m baffled by it. When I’m crying, I don’t particularly want someone to tickle my chin and when I’m doubled up with laughter, I’d rather not have a bucket of freezing cold water chucked all over me.
 
The Wrong Mans (Tuesdays, 9pm) – awful title klaxon – is just such a hybrid: it’s a comedy thriller in six half-hour episodes by Mat Baynton and James Corden (Baynton was Deano in Gavin and Stacey but is probably best known, though not by me, as one of the stars of the children’s programme Horrible Histories).
 
I didn’t hate it – Baynton and Corden are good comedians and they’ve written themselves some funny lines – but all the same, I’m not sure that it quite works. Thirty minutes seems too short a time to accommodate both the tropes of a thriller and a tonne of jokes. I think they should have given themselves an hour, the better that the audience might get its ear in.
 
Sam (Baynton) and Phil (Corden) are employed by Berkshire County Council. Sam is a “town-planning and noise-guidance adviser”; Phil takes care of the office mail. They are both losers but this doesn’t make them friends, because if there’s one thing the self-respecting loser knows, it’s to stay away from blokes even more pathetic than himself.
 
Phil, who is lonely and a bit deluded, is always trying to be matey with Sam – when he drops off his post, he forces Sam to do the exploding fist bump –but Sam is resistant to his moves, refusing, like everyone else in the office, to sign up for any of the outings that he organises (paintballing, go-karting, curry club).
 
Sam, however, is increasingly vulnerable in the loser stakes. His girlfriend, Lizzie (Sarah Solemani), has dumped him and he is shortly to become embroiled with a bunch of Very Nasty People, having picked up a stray mobile at the scene of a car crash he witnessed. Phil, grasping all this, is about to seize the moment.
 
I liked the small things in this series: the way Phil’s pen is attached to his mail trolley, so that he ends up dragging it (the trolley, I mean) halfway up a wall when he adds Sam’s name to his go-karting list. I laughed out loud when, under pressure in a meeting, Sam came up with the slogan: “If you like James Cracknell, you’ll love . . . Bracknell.” But Phil’s phoney macho act – he’s a softie who still lives with his mum but he knows the script of the movie Fight Club by heart – is wearying after a while.
 
It’s a nice touch that he makes his own sushi, rolling it carefully in the mail room with one of those sheets of bamboo, and I did snigger when he said: “You know that what danger doesn’t do is call ahead . . . unless it’s the IRA.” I still had a weird feeling that Corden was playing a version of himself and it left me feeling slightly ripped off.
 
The series looks wonderful, expensive and moody and there are several amazing cameos in it (David Harewood, late of Homeland, appeared for a few bewildering seconds). All this just seemed rather wasteful in the circumstances: the script somehow doesn’t live up to it.
 
Will The Wrong Mans erase the memory of the ill-fated sketch show Corden made with Mathew Horne, another Gavin and Stacey alumnus? (Before I sat down to write this, I looked up my review of it – “as funny and as puerile as a sixth-form review, only without the benefit of in-jokes about your chemistry teacher’s BO” – and winced all over again.) I’m not sure. He probably does need a hit if he’s to be commissioned again. Then again, Corden has proved himself in so many other realms – onstage, in the right role, he is a genius – that it hardly matters if he isn’t able to turn out TV comedies the way a baker turns out warm loaves.
Can James Corden do it all over again? Image: Getty

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder