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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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.