Big helpings


To describe a comedy as "dark" is virtually a compliment in itself these days. That unexpected wrench into tragedy, exemplified by the coronary suffered by Beverley's husband in Abigail's Party, defies you to dismiss the comic voice as trivial. But the greater talent is to make a light and airy comedy that works, the perfect souffle being the hardest culinary miracle of all.

Victoria Wood's Dinnerladies (BBC1, Thursday, 9.30pm) rises magnificently, if not as yet quite effortlessly. In last week's debut episode you could just sense the sweat behind the ingenuity with which Wood introduced nine characters to us, five of them dressed identically in their catering tunics. The characters were immediately distinct, even if each had a voice we already know from Wood's sketch shows and even if their repartee suggested they had spent too many evenings at her one-woman shows. Now we have reached the second episode and, rounded out in performance, they already seem to be speaking, as it were, their own lines.

Wood writes, produces and stars as Bren, a single, childless woman who lives for her job. Bren's pleasures are watching movies on TV and removing the labels from her tins because that way she doesn't know what she is having for her tea. Wood has chosen an equally happy environment for herself, too. If your strength is a weakness for product names and the respectable but struggling working classes, then a works canteen in northern England is your ideal habitat. Like Bren, Wood is happily wed to the mundane, because the mundane, like many an unlikely groom, makes the lady laugh.

The dialogue is Wood at her most highly varnished. "You haven't got your granary torpedoes," said Tony, the manager, in episode one. "I've given you loaves in lieu." It is, of course, the juxtaposition of the bakery and the military, plain English and legalistic French, that is funny, but Wood revels also in the metric equivalences and the alliterations - those and the filthiness of her little follow-up joke about "crusty bloomers".

Wood's virtuosity is such that it is hard to predict quite what kind of show Dinnerladies will end up as. So far, to adapt Churchill, it is a souffle without a theme. The cast is dominated by women but its two men, the innuendo-driving manager Tony (Andrew Dunn) and the technocratic repairman Stan (Duncan Preston), are neither objects of hate nor ridicule. You would expect class antagonism to be aimed at Celia Imrie's human resources manager, Philippa (from Surrey, you know), but she is humoured rather than feared by the dinner ladies. The series may yet need to find itself a baddy. Perhaps Twinkle, the disgruntled young worker who paraphrases Philippa's suggestion that they "toss ideas into the pot" as "toss pot", will get an ever bigger mouth.

As it is, the only truly discordant figure is Bren's dishevelled, kleptomaniac mum, played by Julie Walters. Petula, who, the production notes reveal, had Bren as a teenager, consigned her to an orphanage and then lost the address, seems to have wandered into Dinnerladies from somewhere else, the great hinterland of sadness even canteens have. She will either prove pivotal or be quietly written out.

Wood burnishes cliches until we see ourselves reflected in them. I wish I knew what writer Bryan Elsley thought he was doing with them in The Young Person's Guide to Becoming a Rock Star, a comedy drama on Channel 4 (Tuesday, 10pm) as clumsy as its title. Told in the first person by Jez (Ciaran McMenamin), it is the cartoonish history of an imaginary teenage rock band. Stylistically, it is a little like Trainspotting, if you can imagine the naughtiest thing in Trainspotting being Ewan McGregor caught with a microphone down his jeans. In this week's second episode Jez told us confidently: "Never be afraid of turning rock cliches to your advantage; in the case of the rock'n'roll punch-up it never fails to impress." Don't be so sure, mate.

And what charitable to say about Sermon from St Albion's (ITV, Sunday, 10.30pm)? This is Ian Hislop's adaptation of the Private Eye column starring Harry Enfield as the Rev Blair smarming from the pulpit before an eerily silent congregation (he should hire the claques who manage to laugh at Clarkson). There's light humour and there's dark humour. Sermon identifies a third category: funereal.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London "Evening Standard"

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A prejudice as American as apple pie

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No, IDS, welfare isn't a path to wealth. Quite the opposite, in fact

Far from being a lifestyle choice, welfare is all too often a struggle for survival.

Iain Duncan Smith really is the gift that keeps on giving. You get one bile-filled giftbag of small-minded, hypocritical nastiness and, just when you think it has no more pain to inflict, off comes another ghastly layer of wrapping paper and out oozes some more. He is a game of Pass the Parcel for people who hate humanity.

For reasons beyond current understanding, the Conservative party not only let him have his own department but set him loose on a stage at their conference, despite the fact that there was both a microphone and an audience and that people might hear and report on what he was going to say. It’s almost like they don’t care that the man in charge of the benefits system displays a fundamental - and, dare I say, deliberate - misunderstanding of what that system is for.

IDS took to the stage to tell the disabled people of Britain - or as he likes to think of us, the not “normal” people of Britain -  “We won’t lift you out of poverty by simply transferring taxpayers’ money to you. With our help, you’ll work your way out of poverty.” It really is fascinating that he was allowed to make such an important speech on Opposite Day.

Iain Duncan Smith is a man possessed by the concept of work. That’s why he put in so many hours and Universal Credit was such a roaring success. Work, when available and suitable and accessible, is a wonderful thing, but for those unable to access it, the welfare system is a crucial safety net that keeps them from becoming totally impoverished.

Benefits absolutely should be the route out of poverty. They are the essential buffer between people and penury. Iain Duncan Smith speaks as though there is a weekly rollover on them, building and building until claimants can skip into the kind of mansion he lives in. They are not that. They are a small stipend to keep body and soul together.

Benefits shouldn’t be a route to wealth and DWP cuts have ensured that, but the notion that we should leave people in poverty astounds me. The people who rely on benefits don’t see it as a quick buck, an easy income. We cannot be the kind of society who is content to leave people destitute because they are unable to work, through long-term illness or short-term job-seeking. Without benefits, people are literally starving. People don’t go to food banks because Waitrose are out of asparagus. They go because the government has snipped away at their benefits until they have become too poor to feed themselves.

The utter hypocrisy of telling disabled people to work themselves out of poverty while cutting Access to Work is so audacious as to be almost impressive. IDS suggests that suitable jobs for disabled workers are constantly popping out of the ground like daisies, despite the fact that his own government closed 36 Remploy factories. If he wants people to work their way out of poverty, he has make it very easy to find that work.

His speech was riddled with odious little snippets digging at those who rely on his department. No one is “simply transferring taxpayers’ money” to claimants, as though every Friday he sits down with his card reader to do some online banking, sneaking into people’s accounts and spiriting their cash away to the scrounging masses. Anyone who has come within ten feet of claiming benefits knows it is far from a simple process.

He is incredulous that if a doctor says you are too sick to work, you get signed off work, as though doctors are untrained apes that somehow gained access to a pen. This is only the latest absurd episode in DWP’s ongoing deep mistrust of the medical profession, whose knowledge of their own patients is often ignored in favour of a brief assessment by an outside agency. IDS implies it is yes-no question that GPs ask; you’re either well enough to work or signed off indefinitely to leech from the state. This is simply not true. GPs can recommend their patients for differing approaches for remaining in work, be it a phased return or adapted circumstances and they do tend to have the advantage over the DWP’s agency of having actually met their patient before.

I have read enough stories of the callous ineptitude of sanctions and cuts starving the people we are meant to be protecting. A robust welfare system is the sign of a society that cares for those in need. We need to provide accessible, suitable jobs for those who can work and accessible, suitable benefits for those who can’t. That truly would be a gift that keeps giving.