Dazed and confused

Steve Coogan is far too kind to his latest creation, a washed-up former roadie


Steve Coogan has admitted that he was disappointed by the low-key response last year to the first series of Saxondale, in which he plays an ex-roadie-turned-pest-control expert with anger management issues; he couldn't understand why more people didn't get it. Well, I did get it, and I wanted to love it: the title sequence, in which Tommy Saxondale's custard-coloured Mustang powers through the streets of Stevenage to the sound of "House of the King" by Focus, promised so much. (Focus, pop pickers, is a prog-rock band from the Netherlands; "House of the King" was also used as the theme tune for Don't Ask Me, the Seventies science show that made Magnus Pyke a household name, and is often mistaken for a Jethro Tull number.) An exuberant fart of flute and petrol, it announces the man so succinctly, Coogan could afford to cut back on Tommy's character-establishing range of tics - though he doesn't, of course. Why limit yourself to one twitch if you can get away with a dozen?

So why didn't I love it? It wasn't funny. The first series was ruthlessly well-observed, from the way Tommy chomped his beard (it was like watching a tortoise in a wig go at a nice bit of butter lettuce) to the way he pottered at home (the red-brick doll's house on a close that he shares with his girlfriend, Magz, is as far from backstage madness as Genesis are from being cool). Rasmus Hardiker, who plays Tommy's ghostly assistant Raymond, was divine: a giant Adam's apple in overalls. But everything the characters said had the feeling of having been worked to within an inch of its life. Tommy would bare his awful teeth, some long and overly rehearsed line would lollop out, and all I could picture was Coogan and his co-writer Neil MacLennan splitting their sides at their own devastating wit. As Tommy might put it, the script was like Phil Collins: however hard it tried, it never quite managed to sing.

I couldn't fathom how they were going to crank out a second series and, now I've seen the first part (23 August, 9.30pm), I know that they barely can. There's the comedy of embarrassment, and then there's plain embarrassment: boring plots, lame and repetitive jokes, the sight of talented actors clinging desperately to the fact that they are better than their lines (Morwenna Banks, who plays Vicky, the secretary at the pest-control business, might as well have a sign above her head that says: "Directors, please audition me! I'm great, even in dross like this!"). The pity of it is that, occasionally, you see flashes of what Saxondale could be. It's good when a surrealist note creeps in. In the opening scene, Tommy was at his anger management group, trying to make a fool out of a man who'd boasted of his adventures with cocaine and prostitutes. Tommy listed a series of his own ever more outlandish escapades, which ended with him saying: "Then I stole a live dolphin and used it as a bong."

If you pay close attention (actually, you could watch it with one eye closed and the other on Philip Roth and still notice this), you'll grasp that Tommy Saxondale is just late-era Alan Partridge with a beard and a Captain Beefheart T-shirt: neither one can control his rages, both are living on past glories, both have a desperate desire to get one over on the more successful. But late-era Partridge was hilarious and very black; it had something genuinely savage to say about celebrity. Tommy, on the other hand, was never much of a success in the first place - an East Coast tour with Emerson, Lake and Palmer was about the height of it - and now he is cosily ensconced with Magz, who makes him pea-and-ham soup and strokes his crinkly hair. This sweetness is the work of a comic (Coogan) who is entering middle age himself; perhaps he can't help but be a bit kind to his creation. But it's a fatal weakening on his part. The monster market - Partridge, David Brent, Malcolm in The Thick of It - relies for its success on its creators' unblinking and pitiless detachment. Moist eyes and fond smiles just will not do.

Pick of the week

Boys From the Brown Stuff
27 August, 9pm, BBC2
Fascinating film about “flushers” – the men who unblock sewers.

Starts 28 August, 10.35pm, BBC1
Claire Skinner and Hugh Dennis star in new family sitcom.

The Restaurant
Starts 29 August, 8pm, BBC2
Raymond Blanc assesses nine couples running their own place.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Bush: Is the president imploding?