Not since Johnny Vaughan's 'Orrible last September has a sitcom met a critical kicking as vicious as The House that Jack Built received before it had even been transmitted. "The kind of thing that gives British sitcoms a bad name and makes fast-acting poison appealing," thought the Sunday Times. The Radio Times, which tries not to offend its colleagues at the BBC, made the programme its pick of the day, but only to accuse it of recalling the dark days of the early Seventies, when "all TV sitcoms had sofas dominating stagy sets and stereotyped families whose members shouted at one another". "The whole thing has a certain period fascination," Alison Graham concluded. The Times's previewer disagreed: "Even 50 years ago, this would not have been funny."
I think what we are seeing here is an outpouring of anger not so much at The House that Jack Built itself (although it is terrible) as at the whole genre of sitcom - the sofas, the overlit sets, the studio audiences and enhanced laughter tracks - or even, perhaps, at the thought that we once sat down and, somehow, enjoyed Terry and June. There is a feeling that sitcoms, having grown out of the sketches that punctuated music hall and variety shows, should by now have joined their progenitors in the grave. But there is no form that cannot be reinvented to advantage. The set of Friends is, after all, dominated by sofas, and its plots turn around the relationship between a brother and sister. The Simpsons begins every episode with reference to a magically transforming sofa and is all about a family shouting. The Royle Family rarely ever moves off its sofa. And these are three of the funniest programmes on television.
The family gathered on the sofa this time is headed by Jack Squire, played by Adam Faith in his first television role for a decade. Jack is a self-made man who has amassed a fortune from the building trade, a fortune so colossal that he hires Duran Duran and Lulu to perform by the pool of his Essex mansion to while away Sunday afternoons. He and his wife Maxine - who, as played by Gillian Taylforth, looks rather young to have raised them and certainly expresses no physical rapport - have three grown-up children: a plodding elder son Roger, a feckless younger boy JJ, who sports an Oasis haircut, and a brattish daughter, Lisa, who lives only to spend. Jack is determined to ensure that his success is not a one-generation flash in the pan, and perpetually plays Roger off against JJ to ensure a succession. The first episode (2 August, 9pm, BBC1) is dominated by fears that neither son will supply him with a grandson. The words "low sperm count" cause much laughter, enhanced by their being uttered in a clinic where a row of Islamic women are conveniently waiting to be offended. The subtext is: look what happens when the working classes get affluent.
Faith, who warns the audience of a witticism to come by smiling quietly in advance of it, much as Roseanne used to, says that he was attracted to the script because it locked into "the greatest single area for humour, which is class". But the scripts by Gary Lawson and John Phelps deal with class so crudely that none of its subtleties is scrutinised. We are meant - are we? - to find it intrinsically absurd that nouveau-riche Jack, moved from orphanage to orphanage as a child, worries about preserving a family, and a dynasty, in the way that genuine aristocrats do. So addled is the family by his paranoia that Roger drugs his brother and gets his sperm assessed by a vet - the metaphor being that Jack treats his children like his racehorses.
The dialogue demonstrates the usual fault of thinking that comedy springs from people saying deliberately funny things ("I'd rather watch a DVD or watch MTV and eat a BLT," Roger replies when Vicky asks him to consider IVF), although the best laughs always come from people saying things that accidentally reveal their own character flaws. The acting suggests that no one has told the cast whether to play for naturalism or to the gallery. But even if the performances and repartee were perfect, the nastiness of this particular set-up would render you mirthless.
This is a family in which the pater suggests that the best way of ensuring his elder son has a son is to impregnate his son's wife with his own sperm. The wife is horrified, but not as horrified, presumably, as she would be if she knew he really had had an affair with her, which is what we learn in the second episode. It is a family where a sister charges her brother £2,000 to organise an abortion for his girlfriend although she isn't even pregnant. It is a family in which every member, save for the bland, peacemaking wife, hates everybody else.
But under the jolly, bright studio lights, any satirical intent shrivels. The hilarity that rises every time a designer label is mentioned drowns any anti-consumerist message. We are left to giggle at the dypsomaniac servant, Mrs (ho, ho) Butterjig, downing the family whisky and being tricked into wearing the same blouse as Jack's daughter-in-law - another prole who shouldn't be let near the good life.
The Squire family is a nasty piece of work. Mired in its values, so is The House that Jack Built. Don't blame the sofas. Blame the writers.
Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times