Upstaged by a prop

Television - Andrew Billen is less than happy with Paul Whitehouse's new comic creation

British television is going through a patch of being not at all bad. Comic Relief (BBC1, mainly), which usually provides a good reason to be out on a March Friday night, gave us not only Ali G's acute interview with Posh and Becks, but the excuse for Celebrity Big Brother (mainly Channel 4), which, like the original, will probably emerge as one of the key TV events of the decade. The Cops returned this week to BBC2 on Wednesday and was followed minutes later by Teachers, which may well be the ensemble, profession-based drama that finally scores for Channel 4 after the near-misses of Psychos and North Square.

And then there is the new comedy series Happiness (BBC2, Tuesdays, 10pm), written by Paul Whitehouse and David Cummings of The Fast Show. It stars Whitehouse, who has borrowed The Fast Show's Mark Williams, Simon Day and Maria McErlane for cameo work. The magnificent Johnny Vegas has a recurring role as Charlie, a 40-year-old divorced alcoholic going on 18.

Its subject, mid-life crisis, is one that has fascinated Whitehouse ever since he invented a character in The Fast Show known as Mid-life Crisis Man, a figure who never in fact made it to the screen. What is more, it seems to reflect Whitehouse's personal circumstances. His marriage fell apart last year and the humble former plasterer is now best buddies with Johnny Depp, who is said to consider him an actor of genius. Such talent combined with such experience should produce something special.

But, oh dear, Happiness is so much less good than I hoped. Whitehouse is Danny, widowed rather than divorced by his wife, Katie - although it emerges that divorce was on the cards. The opening episode, "Personality Crisis", was set on the day of her funeral, and you knew you were in trouble as soon as you learnt that she was run over on a pedestrian-crossing by an ice-cream van. I kept thinking of the legendary episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in which Chuckles the Clown, dressed as a peanut, is killed by a rogue elephant. If you are going to do black humour, you really have to do it with a bit of guts.

The best thing about the programme was the title sequence which had Danny doing a voice-over for his creation Dexter, as the Plasticine bear sang the old Ken Dodd ballad "Happiness". The song and the bear, which is dressed in a toon-tastic outfit of nurse's uniform and gigantic Y-fronts, were both done very well. Most of the grace notes, in fact, were ursine. At a bookshop signing, an angry father, played by Day, increased Danny's sense of insignificance by wanting his daughter's copy of Dexter's Diary to be signed by the guy in the bear suit - that is, an unemployed actor - rather than by him: "She wants the bear to sign the book. She doesn't want the voice that does the bear."

But the episode's big number, Katie's funeral, was a failure. Funerals, like weddings, are occasions where private emotions run against public ceremony and so are littered with embarrassment and taboo. They are good value for scriptwriters. Here, however, the level of humour was set by Charlie falling drunk off a bus on the way to the cemetery. Another friend, a caricature Scots heavy named Angus (Clive Russell), arrived astride a huge Harley Davidson with a blonde bimbo riding pillion. For a moment, he and other black-clad mourners were filmed in the inevitable parody of Reservoir Dogs. Two went to the wrong service. There was a foul-mouthed Stuttering Man (Williams). Two old ladies offered their commiserations; Danny had never met them before.

Slinking in beside the broad gags were others so narrow, they were almost invisible. Nothing much was made of the friend who tastelessly videoed the service, or of the aimless discussions about Aristotle Onassis and Rod Stewart, semi-ironic examples of "successful" middle-aged men. Some of the dialogue aimed for opaque absurdity: "Who'd have thought we would have lived long enough to be burying each other?" Other parts yearned for naturalism, as in the repeated platitude, "It hasn't sunk in yet." But Whitehouse and Cummings do not have Mike Leigh's ear, and Declan Lowney's direction was wooden throughout.

All might not be lost if Danny were either more engaging or more hateful. He feels guilty for not being more upset about his wife's death, but the reason for his guilt eludes us as well as him. During the priest's sermon, his mind drifts and he imagines delivering a cynical tribute to his wife as he collects a Bafta, but this Larry Sanders moment seems tacked on to a character who has otherwise scant career ambition. What else do we learn about him? He has a single- figure sperm count, a bald patch and, at 39, thinks he is about to embark "on a slow trundle towards drool, piss and impotence at 40". The trouble with having a drama about a character less vivid than the Plasticine bear he hides behind is that you end up caring more about the bear.

In next week's episode, Happiness makes the mistake of having its characters watch The Royle Family; this sitcom pales beside it. There is an emptiness at its heart and not enough going on peripherally to make up for it.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London Evening Standard

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