Eat my shorts!

The Sky Arts adaptations of Chekhov are a little too decorous.

Chekhov expressed some disappointment when his work was taken to be a catalogue of human misery. He apparently thought it was a bit of a hoot. Or at least, that there was some hooting to be done along the way. It was certainly a canny idea on the part of Henry Normal to cast such comedy big-hitters as Johnny Vegas, Sheridan Smith and Steve Coogan to star in Chekhov: Comedy Shorts which will doubtless be seen as a bit of a coup for Sky Arts.

Airing the man's shorts, as it were, does present problems. Most obviously, he didn't write sitcoms. He wrote for living, breathing theatre, with all the firing of synapses and pheromones that entails -- not to mention the liberties and possibilities of staging. Television opens up possibilities, too, but to trap the performance in a 1970s version of a 19th-century lookalike set seems to confirm it as antique and moribund, and besides, all that cloying Victoriana detail is distracting.

However, there's a pleasing tension between the familiar household names -- with whom we mistakenly believe we have some sort of pally relationship -- and the old-fangled, faded references of Chekhov's sketches. The TV doyens appeared to be having fun, in a let's play grown-ups kind of way: you could almost hear the quotation marks curling around some of the lines.

At other times the delivery seemed oddly flat: the habitual underplayed patter of Julian Barratt (The Mighty Boosh) tended to err on the side of wood, though he did perk up a bit when sparring with "real-life partner" Julia Davis. Steve Coogan had no-one to feed off but himself in his one-hander, ostensibly a lecture on the evils of tobacco, but actually a long digression on the evils of marriage. The lecture format translates to telly neatly, and at least Chekhov is released from the amber drawing room. Coogan himself looks the picture of disappointment: mouth welded in a downturn, unkempt hair, it's Alan Partridge with ten years of suffering behind him and the "aha" ground out of his lexicon.

Vegas does Chekhov like he does everything else and it works rather well. With no concessions to time and place, some of his rants -- on tenors, for example who "attack the central nervous system" -- might have been his own; in this he is helped by a peppy translation from Paul Schmitt, who freely introduces words like "creep" and "bugger". Vegas has a muzzle built for latent tragedy, a knobbly root vegetable with a twinkle in the eye that looks as if it might turn teary at any moment; he wheezes and blusters at Mackenzie Crook with the hoarse whine of an artillery bombardment. Crook, as Vegas has pointed out, has a face you just want to shout at and merely has to look riven and pointy to Vegas's massy tuber.

And it's quite funny. Maybe not roll on the floor laughing funny, but still. There is wry humour in the running joke (or running sore) of the battle of the sexes; Coogan's off-stage wife calls him, among other pet sobriquets, Satan. Matthew Horne and Sheridan Smith are on fine form as they repeatedly derail a marriage proposal by arguing about who owns what and who has the best dog. And it's the men who get the vapours, pass out, and have nameless nervous complaints.

Barratt's Smírnoff is almost Petruchio-like in his disdain for the female of the species, who has, apparently, the soul of a crocodile and the brain of a pigeon. He gets his come-uppance as he falls in love, à coup foudre, with his widowed debtor. There are mock-Shakespearean echoes in Vegas's character, too, as he howls out Othello's "blood, Iago, blood!" in response to his exhausting schedule of matrimonial errands and tasks. Some of this could have been written yesterday: who hasn't asked their significant other to just pick up a few things while they were in town?

Our enjoyment seems predicated, somehow, on familiarity with the performers, and perhaps the biggest joke is that these light entertainment types are doing Chekhov at all. This stunt does rely on a knowledge of their back catalogue, a sense that they have more jokes in their rear pockets. The comedians prove wholly capable of doing Chekhov's light and dark; but next time, spring him from the parlour and shake him up a bit, like they do in the world of 3D that he called theatre.

HELEN SLOAN / THE FALL 3 LTD
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The Fall is back - and once again making me weary

Five more episodes to go, after which its “feminist” writer (his word, not mine), Allan Cubitt, should pull the plug on it at last. Plus: Damned.

It is with much weariness that I return to The Fall (Thursdays, 9pm), the creepy drama that still doesn’t know whether it wants to be a horror-fest or a love story. I’ve written in the past about what I regard as its basic misogyny – to sum up, it seems to me to make a fetish of the violence committed against women, a preoccupation it pathetically tries to disguise by dint of its main character being a female detective – and I don’t propose to return to that theme now. However, in its early days, it was at least moderately gripping. Now, though, it appears to be recovering from some kind of nervous breakdown. If in series two the plot was wobbling all over the place, series three has misplaced the idea of drama altogether. Nothing is happening. At all.

To recap: at the end of the last series, Paul Spector, aka the Belfast Strangler (Jamie Dornan), had been shot while in police custody, somewhat improbably by a man who blames him for the demise of his marriage (oh, that Spector were only responsible for breaking up a few relationships). On the plus side for his supposed nemesis, DSI Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson), before he fell he led them to Rose Stagg, the ex-girlfriend he’d locked in the boot of a car some days previously, and she is going to live. On the minus side, Spector’s injuries are so bad, it’s touch and go whether he’ll survive, and so Gibson may never see him brought to justice. Of course, the word “justice” is something of a red herring here.

The real reason she wants Spector to live is more dubious. As she stared at his body in the ICU, all tubes and monitors, her expression was so obviously sexual – her mouth opened, and stayed that way, as her eyes ran over every part of his body – that I half expected her to reach out and stroke him. Just in time for this nocturnal visit, she’d slipped into another of her slinky silk blouses that look like poured cream. (Moments earlier – think Jackie Kennedy in 1963 – she’d still been covered in her love object’s blood.)

The entire episode took place at the hospital, police procedural having morphed suddenly into Bodies or Cardiac Arrest. Except, this was so much more boring and cliché-bound than those excellent series – and so badly in need of their verisimilitude. When I watch The Fall, I’m all questions. Why doesn’t Stella ever tie her hair back? And why does she always wear high heels, even when trying to apprehend criminals? For how much longer will the presumably cash-strapped Police Service of Northern Ireland allow her to live in a posh hotel? Above all, I find myself thinking: why has this series been so acclaimed? First it was nasty, and then it was only bad. Five more episodes to go, after which its “feminist” writer (his word, not mine), Allan Cubitt, should join Gibson in the ICU, where together they can ceremonially pull the plug on it at last.

Can Jo Brand do for social workers in her new comedy, Damned, what she did a few years ago for geriatric nurses in the brilliant Getting On? I expect she probably can, even though this Channel 4 series (Tuesdays, 10pm), co-written with Morwenna Banks and Will Smith, does have an awfully inky heart. Hungry children, drug-addict parents, a man who can go nowhere without his oxygen tank: all three were present and correct when Rose (Brand) went to visit a client who turned out to be a woman who, long ago, had nicked her (Rose’s) boyfriend. Ha ha? Boohoo, more like.

Damned is basically The Office with added family dysfunction. Al (Alan Davies) is a hen-pecked wimp, Nitin (Himesh Patel) is a snitch, and Nat (Isy Suttie) is the stupidest and most annoying temp in the Western world. This lot have two bosses: Martin (Kevin Eldon), a kindly widower, and Denise (Georgie Glen), the cost-cutting line manager from hell. And Rose has a plonker of an ex-husband, Lee (Nick Hancock). “I’ve been invited to the Cotswolds for the weekend,” he told her, trying to wriggle out of looking after the children. “Is that why you look like a knob?” she replied.

Jerky camerawork, naturalistic acting, a certain daring when it comes to jokes about, say, race: these things are pretty familiar by now, but I like it all the same.

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 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories