No laughing matter

Great acting aside, this series on the lives of comedians has been a let-down

<strong>Frankie How

It's not often that I don't know what I think - it's an exhausting fault of mine that I have so many strong opinions - but in the case of BBC4's Curse of Comedy season of films about dead and, in some cases, almost forgotten comedians, I am genuinely in two minds.

I wouldn't have missed them for anything; I'm excessively sentimental about the recent past, and love all these interiors stuffed with G Plan furniture and Midwinter pottery. Plus, it's undeniably fascinating to consider what celebrity was like before the existence of OK! magazine (answer: not as different as you might imagine). But another part of me wonders whether they should have been made at all. What's the point of them? Hancock was a comedy genius, and thus arguably a fit subject. But who cares now about Wilfrid Brambell, the star of Steptoe and Son, or about Hughie Green, the priapic presenter of Opportunity Knocks? Thanks to the essential thinness of their material, all four of the films have been too long and underpowered, the mild tedium relieved only by some wonderful central performances.

It was the same with Rather You Than Me, the last in the series (9 April, 9pm), which starred David Walliams as Frankie Howerd and Rafe Spall as Dennis Heymer, his boyfriend of 35 years. At times, it was plodding and repetitive: too many shots of Howerd's wig, too many framing shots of him sitting alone on his sofa, staring into space. But Walliams and Spall were so good, especially Walliams. The tendency when playing a real person is for an actor to turn in an impersonation, but while Walliams had the voice and mannerisms just right - especially the way that Howerd used to force his chest out and his arms back in the manner of a particularly camp chicken - and in profile was a dead ringer for him, he brought something else to the role, too: a palpable sadness.

It was there not just in the scenes where Howerd was recovering from his nervous breakdown, or visiting a psychiatrist in an attempt to "cure" himself of homosexuality, but even when he was in front of a laughing audience. With every double entendre and "titter ye not", your sense grew that between Frankie and a burst dam of emotion, there was only his desperate finger plugging the hole - and, of course, poor Dennis, always on hand with a pep talk and a TV supper.

All of the films have tried, somewhat creakily, to be "relevant". Hughie Green, it was implied, was an early proponent of reality television, what with his insistence that "ordinary" people be allowed to appear on screen. In Howerd's story, the message was that fame was ever the enemy of trust and the mother of anxiety, a drumbeat that sounded all the more loudly given Walliams's own unhappy appearances in the tabloids. "That is the problem with being well known," said Howerd to Heymer. "People say they want to look after you. But they're only after hanging on, or a job."

Howerd's sexuality, which he kept secret both through necessity - he was 50 when gay sex finally became legal - and because it made him so deeply miserable (abused by his father, he was unable to separate his homosexuality from the "dirty" experiences of his childhood), made him horribly vulnerable to blackmail. Well, plus ça change. Not so long ago, someone gave or sold CCTV pictures of Walliams to a Sunday newspaper.

Fame is a murky pond, and you must hold your nose as you dive into it. The trouble is, it seems to me, that so many of those who are drawn to what used to be called show business are so peculiarly ill-equipped to deal with it - and I think it must be this irony, even more than those brown and sage postwar interiors, that has kept me glued to these films. I don't doubt that some writer or academic is scribbling away on this very subject as I write. But, if not, someone should jump to it.

Meanwhile, the cycle goes on. Thirty years from now, BBC4 viewers will be settling down to watch the Michael Barrymore story. For all I know, that one has already been commissioned.

Pick of the week

Pushing Daisies
12 April, 9pm, ITV1
Hot(ish) from the US, a pie maker who can raise the dead.

Age of Terror: Terror International
15 April, 9pm, BBC2
Gripping story of the 1976 Israeli raid on the airport at Entebbe.

Inside the Medieval Mind
17 April, 9pm, BBC4
No, not Simon Heffer's: the historian Robert Bartlett travels back in time.

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 14 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Belief is back