Television - A Bilko for our times

Andrew Billen laughs till he weeps at the antics of Peter Kay

The last time I laughed till I wept at a TV programme was when Alan Partridge bedded an older woman in his motel room and in a failed erotic gesture she smeared him with chocolate mousse. That was a few years back. Repeats of the first series of Peter Kay's Phoenix Nights, however, had me crying with laughter. Having seen the first two episodes of the second (Thursdays, 10pm, Channel 4), I promise there are more wet hanky moments to come.

It is set in an old-fashioned Chorley, a comic doppelganger for Bolton, where the licensee, the wheelchair-bound Brian Potter, tries to make a go of his third attempt to run a working men's club by cutting corners on the health and safety, ripping off his customers and insulting his staff. When his management technique is questioned, his standard response is "Shut up, you girl".

This antediluvian loss-making club, where it is always raining without and smoky within, should be a kind of hell. Most sitcoms - Steptoe, Porridge, Fawlty Towers - are comedies of confinement. Extraordinarily, however, the staff and clientele are loyal to the club and to Potter. The standards the club upholds in its warm beer, old jokes, and puritanical aversion to smut, represent a place of greater safety than the cruel world outside of financial success, university degrees and sex. ("You want to ration yourself, Paul," the bouncer Max advises his younger colleague. "You only get a bucket and a half." "Is that all?" "It's all I got.") The Phoenix's idea of a brave new world is to serve garlic bread.

With his grey moustache and double chin, Potter, looks in his early fifties though Kay, who plays him and also writes and directs, must be in his twenties. He is an immoral, Bilko-style entrepreneur, and although his schemes are doomed he seems to be right in thinking that there is considerable elasticity of demand for the tat he offers: "There's people out there with Giros burning holes in their shellsuits." Nobody refers to him being in a wheelchair and his disability remains unexplained, leading us to wonder if there is, in fact, anything wrong with him apart from obesity. Potter himself, however, is not above using his disablement for purposes of crude one-upmanship. "Don't talk to me about upper-body strength. I wrote the book on it," he'll say.

Stupid though he is, he is surrounded by still more stupid colleagues, deeply susceptible to his crude manipulations as, this week, when he proposes to rebuild the club, burnt down by an arsonist at the end of the previous series. His speech ("If we build it, they will come") is backed, on cassette, by the theme from Van der Valk.

One of the delights of the series is that Kay bows before the morons he has created and lets them take the best lines. If there is a star, it is Kay's co-writer Dave Spikey, who plays the Phoenix's compere, Jerry "the Saint" St Clair Dignan. The last series had him excreting blood and then leaping with joy when his doctors gave him the all-clear. Potter had meanwhile used his possible death sentence for commercial ends, forcing Jerry to sing a nauseating version of "Seasons in the Sun" while wearing a baseball cap, "because it makes you look more ill".

This week, having had his licence revoked, Potter persuaded Jerry to take nominal possession of the rebuilt club: "I am not getting any younger. My running days are over. I'm handing my baton to you. Run wild. Run free." By episode two, Potter will have him dressed as a tomato, rechristened "Jerry the Berry". Jerry is unlikely even to get to rename the Pennine Suite the Sir Steve Redgrave Suite, a little tribute to his own troubled colon.

Kay has created a credible comic world, filled with detail down to the floral tribute to "Nan" at the side of the Blackpool tramline. In many ways, it is true to life. The music played in the club is exquisitely accurate: "This Old Heart of Mine" by the Isley Brothers, "Going to a Go Go" by Smokey Robinson. So is the dialogue. When the characters are fluent, they speak in cliches. When they extemporise, their grammar breaks down; so Potter lectures his crew: "People don't matter what they drink. It doesn't care. It's the facilities. It's the surroundings." But the reality is tweaked every now and again, with Chorley FM announcing itself as the station that "comes in your ear".

You'd be pushed to call this an affectionate parody of working-class culture, but it is less snobbish than, say, Graham Fellows's take on a similar scene as John Shuttleworth. Jerry shows real bottle when he takes on his student hecklers, outsmarting them when his ancient gags prove funnier than their wanking jokes. For Potter and Jerry, there is nothing lower than alternative comedy; the Phoenix is in real trouble when it has to put on an evening of it. But Phoenix Nights, in many ways an old-fashioned, character-based sitcom, shows how the alternative sensibility now informs everything with half of chance of bringing tears to your eyes, missus.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times