How did Ben Elton's "The Wright Way" get it so wrong?

The old comedy adage says that if there's nothing funny left to say, make a penis joke. Perhaps this explains why <em>The Wright Way</em> is just one big knob gag, then.

Ben Elton’s new sitcom, The Wright Way, was likely doomed from the moment the first scathing review went online. Coming from a widely-disliked figure like Elton - the turncoat, the sell-out - its reputation preceded it, other critics bundled on, and pretty soon everybody knew for certain that it was going to be a stinker. (At the time of writing, Wikipedia lists its genre as “Anti-comedy”.) The Twitter LOL-vultures circled.

As fun as the Twitter competition for the most cutting put-down was, there’s also reason to be slightly wary of this feedback loop of mass instant criticism. While online word-of-mouth can propel slow-burn, boxset-ready series to hit status, the real-time rush-to-judgement also has the potential to condemn shows before they’ve had a chance to find their feet.

Sitcoms are especially vulnerable to this; they’re notoriously hard to get right straight away. Test audiences hated the first episode of Friends; Men Behaving Badly had to lose its star and move to a different broadcaster before audiences embraced it; Blackadder didn’t reach its comic potential until they brought in a bold young talent called Ben something-or-other to shake up the second series. Quite simply, it’s a flat-out foolhardy and ignorant act to pass judgement on a sitcom’s true worth just a few episodes in.

Unless it’s The Wright Way, of course, because it’s utter, utter crap.

The second episode landed with a sickly thud on our televisions last night, and might have - somehow – managed to be worse than the first episode. A shockingly lazy calamity of a show, its many, many superficial failures serve only as a light and fluffy distraction from the vast, gaping flaws at its core. (The central character, David Haig’s health and safety officer Gerald Wright, is a crudely Frankensteined composite of Victor Meldrew and Gordon Brittas, who splits his time evenly between furiously railing against the petty annoyances of modern life and taking great pleasure in causing the petty annoyances of modern life. This is because Ben Elton only had so many jokes to go round and nobody could be bothered to tell him that it made absolutely no sense.)

Two episodes in, we can now start to sense the shape of the show’s broader trends. For example, some of the characters have catchphrases! David Haig’s catchphrase is “don’t get me started”. His daughter’s lesbian lover’s catchphrase is “this is such a YouTube moment” (because that is totes what all the young people say). Mina Anwar’s catchphrase is shouting.

If something wasn’t funny once, try repeating it. An entire section of dialogue about chest waxing is replicated, beat for beat, in both episodes. A plot about Wright’s ex-wife coming over for tea somehow takes two episodes to set up (possibly this counts as a “story arc”?) A character says the title of the show. Twice.

In what is clearly intended to be the series’ signature comic riff, each episode features a scene in which Wright constructs a series of tortuous acronyms on a whiteboard, unwittingly spelling out a rude phrase. These phrases, it turns out, also handily serve as the show’s epitaph:

As these demonstrate, above all else, the show hews tightly to the comic rule that if there’s nothing funny left to say, make a penis joke. Penis. Penis. Words that mean penis. Things that look like penises. Penis. At one point a character talks about vaginas, just to keep the audience guessing. Then back to penis. Penis. Penis acronyms. Actions that look like a character is using his penis. Penis.

Now: David Haig is a fine comic actor, and both he and his groin are veterans of many classically bawdy British comedies. His is a grizzled, old-timey groin that’s been the punchline to many a set-up, the prat of many falls, the penis ex machina that plugged a hundred plot holes. Like Rutger Hauer’s replicant in Blade Runner, this groin has seen things you people wouldn’t believe. And yet, there was a moment last night, as Haig’s battle-hardened, farce-calloused groin wearily humped a dustbin for the second time that episode, when - if you were watching in HD, perhaps - you could just about see his groin embracing the inevitability of death.

This sense of resignation in the face of doom pervades the whole shooting match. Elton could perhaps be forgiven for having lost his hunger, living as he does in a giant fort made of money and Queen CDs. But everywhere you look there are signs that nobody involved in the show gave much of a toss. Characters drinking out of mugs that are obviously empty. Haig spending most of a scene sitting at table where his face isn’t properly lit. Camera placements that can’t quite remember who was supposed to be in shot. And a dead-eyed cast, mechanically mugging their way through the script in the hope that if they just do everything loudly enough, their agents might return their children unharmed.

(My personal favourite is Beattie Edmonson’s increasingly desperate expressions while hanging around in the back of shots, trying to find something plausible to do with her face as she waits for her next line to stagger into view. Seriously, try re-watching it with the sound off, just focusing on her. It’s such a YouTube moment.)

So, bad show is bad. What of it? The problem here is not so much that somebody made a lousy TV show, it’s what they didn’t make instead. TV commissions are a zero-sum game - there are only so many pilots that can be ordered, only so many series made. And there are too many young writers desperate for a chance to try things out, to learn and fail and get better, for the BBC to be easily forgiven for shovelling time and money towards complacent, will-that-do dross like The Wright Way.

There’s no formula to comedy. Any commissioning policy worth a damn will produce as many failures as successes. But at least fail by trying.

This is why the Twitter hate-watchalong, entertaining as it was, was doomed to run out of steam long before episode two was halfway through. The Wright Way is not so bad it’s good, it’s so bad it’s simply exhausting. How can you work up the energy to mock something for missing the target when nobody involved seems to have cared enough to even aim for it? The sheer number of ungiven fucks have a profoundly enervating, soul-sapping quality. It’s like J K Rowling’s Dementors, sucking all the joy from a room. There’s just nothing funny left to say.

Penis.

 

The cast of Ben Elton's "The Wright Way", making serious faces while wearing hard hats. Photograph: BBC
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How Tony Blair's disingenuous line on Iraq eroded our faith in politicians

Not the Chilcot Report by Peter Oborne reveals how Blair exagerrated evidence from the intelligence services to parliament – and the public.

In this incisive book, Peter Oborne calls the invasion of Iraq “the defining calamity of the post-Cold War era” and I am inclined to agree. Not long after the March 2003 attack, I interviewed Adnan Pachachi, a former foreign minister and UN ambassador for Iraq. He told me that he had visited President George W Bush in Washington a few weeks before the invasion and begged him not to go ahead with it. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein would, Pachachi warned, lead inevitably to civil war between Iraq’s two main religious groupings, the Sunnis and the Shias. Bush was shocked. According to Pachachi, he had no idea that any such division among Muslims existed.

Granted, Bush was an ignoramus – but you would have thought that someone might have explained this crucial fact to him. Pachachi turned out to be right. Iraq has fallen into a disastrous religious civil war as a direct result of the invasion and Isis, a more extreme force even than al-Qaeda, has come to the fore. Nearly 5,000 coalition soldiers died; many hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, perhaps a million, have lost their lives; and the man who led the whole terrible business didn’t know that the danger even existed.

Pachachi, like many politicians across the Middle East, found this puzzling. The US had never understood the Middle East, he said, but the British did; so why hadn’t Tony Blair warned the Americans what was going to happen? We know the answer to that: although Blair was far cleverer than Bush and had better advisers, his approach was always a subservient one. Like the entire British establishment, he believed that Britain’s influence in the world depended on sticking close to the US and he was prepared to be led around on a leash because he knew that this was the only relationship Bush’s people understood or wanted from him.

To “stand shoulder to shoulder” with Bush – at least, to stand closer behind him, head bowed, than any other national leader – Blair had to persuade the British people that Saddam posed a threat to them. Oborne, in fine forensic form, demolishes (his word) the notion that Blair was simply repeating what the intelligence services had told him about Saddam’s weapons and capability; he shows that Blair exaggerated and misrepresented the intelligence he was given.

Lord Butler, the former cabinet secretary who had investigated the government’s pre-invasion use of intelligence, said the same thing in a speech in the House of Lords in 2007. He described Blair’s approach as “disingenuous”: mandarin-speak for dishonest. Oborne quotes Butler at length:

 

The United Kingdom intelligence community told him [Blair] on 23 August 2002 that, “We . . . know little about Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons work since late 1988.” The prime minister did not tell us that. Indeed, he told parliament only just over a month later that the picture painted by our intelligence services was “extensive, detailed and authoritative”.

 

Oborne’s central point is that this dishonesty has done serious damage to the fundamental trust that the British people used to have in their rulers. There are all sorts of reasons why people have lost faith in politicians but it was the charismatic Blair – along with his head of communications, Alastair Campbell – who let us down the most.

Campbell is a former journalist who, even when he was the political editor of the Daily Mirror, seemed far more concerned with pushing a party line than with trying to report things truthfully. In May 2003, the BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan accused him of “sexing up” the dossier on Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction. Campbell was irate. In July, Dr David Kelly, the Ministry of Defence weapons expert who had briefed Gilligan, committed suicide. If, indeed, it was suicide – once you start losing faith in the ­official version of things, there is no end to it. And that is Oborne’s point.

Kelly’s death was followed by the scandalous Hutton inquiry, which managed to deflect attention from the questionable nature of the dossier to the way in which Gilligan had reported on it. However, although Kelly wasn’t a sufficiently senior source for Gilligan to base his report on, there is no doubt that Gilligan was essentially right: the intelligence dossier had been grossly hyped up. Campbell’s frenzied efforts to protect himself and Blair did huge damage to the BBC, the judiciary, the intelligence and security agencies and public trust in government.

Oborne’s excellent book is clear-headed and furious in its condemnation of Blair. But what about the Chilcot report, when it appears on 6 July? The ludicrous delay in publishing it has given people the expectation that it, too, will be a whitewash. Yet we are starting to get leaks that it won’t be – that it will be just as savage as Oborne would like. That is the only way we can start to drain the poison that has built up in our national life since Blair took the calamitous decision to follow the US into invading a country that its president knew zip about.

John Simpson (@JohnSimpsonNews) is the world affairs editor of the BBC

Not the Chilcot Report by Peter Oborne is published by Head of Zeus (208pp, £10)

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad