Pony tales

Television

The mostly female sketch show Smack the Pony (Channel 4, Fridays) began its run last month with a woman taking an infinitely elaborate warm-up at the side of a swimming pool. After an impressive regimen of stretches, she takes the plunge but, instead of making a graceful dive, belly-flops into the water and struggles into a doggy paddle. The joke is about keeping up appearances, self-delusion, thwarted ambition: between the idea and reality falls the shadow - especially (discuss) for women. But it is also an example of sketch-writing at its most basic: premise plus premise subverted equals comedy.

Six episodes in, it seems clearer that the genuine virtues of Smack the Pony - and when it comes down to it, its virtues are identical to those of its brilliant actor-comedians, Sally Phillips (Sophie, the receptionist from I'm Alan Partridge), Doon Mackichan (The Day Today) and Fiona Allen (Goodness Gracious Me) - are usually overwhelmed by the timidity of the scripts. The bathetic distance between the swimmer's sophisticated limbering up and her achievement in the water became the emblem for a series that took infinite care in its acting, direction and filming, and then, as often as not, delivered clumsy, spluttering comedy.

Yet several myths have already been created around it. One is that this is not, as Channel 4's commissioning editor, Caroline Leddy, put it, "a girls' sketch show". "Hopefully, people won't even notice it's all women," Mackichan insisted in an interview. But while Phillips was right to boast in another that there were no "all-men-are-bastards", tampon or "women-love-chocolate" sketches, from its fluorescent pink opening sequence with its bicycle-riding fish ("A woman needs a man like . . ." etc) through to the girl band parodies, the show surely played up to and parodied its gender.

The second lie is that Smack runs with the naturalistic humour pioneered by The Day Today. "Viewers should be pushed to tell whether they're watching a documentary or a comedy," Victoria Pile, its producer, told the Independent. At its best, as in Allen's sketch in which she played a distraught mother at a missing-child press conference who suddenly realises her boy is actually at Scout camp, there is a chance of this but, on the whole, there is no realism about the programme at all. It is filmed like a car commercial or an ITV drama, glossy and middle class but with a barking laugh-track.

The only real thought lurking behind the laughter is the simplistic one that these glamorous women are not as nice as they look. An early sketch had two surgeons quarrelling during an operation and shoving each other's faces into their patient's opened torso. In this week's episode, a busker got punched in the face and an ice-cream was whacked out of a child's hand. These girls would rather smack a pony than pat it.

When it is not assaulting people, however, Smack is content to tickle. It prefers silly to nasty, although silly always has a higher failure rate as comedy. The infectious lipstick sketch last week, in which crimson splodges were passed mouth to cheek round a publishing party, actually got less funny as it went on and on. On the other hand, the Czech sixth-formers engaged in some vaguely erotic dance who took off their cardigans to reveal amazingly hirsute under-arms were a rare example of a very funny gag (which was against pretentious cinema, not uncouth oxters) enhanced, not thwarted, by over-heightened production values.

The critical discussion surrounding Smack the Pony flatters it. Its volume is due as much to an uncertainty about its aims as the success with which it reaches them. In general conversation, has anyone yet said that such and such is "very Smack the Pony" in the way real life very quickly became very Ab Fab, Brass Eye or League of Gentlemen? Perhaps in its second season Smack the Pony will develop a point of view. So far, three hours in, the best you can say is that it generates funny and unfunny ideas indiscriminately.

After Melinda Messenger's autocued chatshow, Channel 5 has taken a chance Sky One did not with Beat the Crusher and awarded her a quiz show to present all by herself. Can We Still Be Friends? (Tuesdays), an under-tested antidote to Blind Date and Mr and Mrs, has ex-couples scoring points by scoring points against their ex-lovers. In Melinda's well-meaning but inexpert hands, this week's opener provided some of the grimmest suggestions yet of the crisis in contemporary relationships.

Jilted Lisa betrayed her pathological jealousy of dodgy Derek, and Derek demonstrated she had good reason. In one crucial round, forced to complete her sentence "Once or twice I pretended to be somewhere when I was really round . . .", Derek wrote: "AT. A. FREINDS". Lacking Bruce Forsyth's cruel wit or, indeed, wit of any sort, Melinda avoided mentioning the illiteracy, although I later wondered if she had noticed it. Offering Lisa the prize of a Eurostar date with her ex (has ever a winner looked more as if she had just swallowed a lemon?), Melinda asked if her grunt was a "bit of negatory". It would do Miss Messenger a lot of good among the thinking classes if she volunteered herself as the Ulrika Jonsson fall-gal of the next season of Smack the Pony. Her estuary artlessness might even loosen the programme up. Messenger is the blonde whose dumbed-down time has surely come.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London "Evening Standard"

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 26 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The great Balkan lie