Grandma’s House

Is Simon Amstell quite as clever as he thinks?

Grandma's House

In mourning for Rev, I was hoping that Grandma's House (Mondays, 10pm) might serve as a replacement. Good comedy seems to be all about kindness and community right now, and Grand­ma's House looked as though it, too, might be cosy and wise. As I write, however, I'm still not sure. The first episode made me laugh out loud, but I have a feeling that its whole shtick - Grandma's House is what you get if you cross The Royle Family with a Howard Jacobson novel, and then throw in a bit of Noah Baumbach for good measure - could get mighty annoying over the course of six episodes.

Nor can I make up my mind about Simon Amstell, its writer and its star. He looks like a porpoise in a wig, which is quite an endearing way to look, when you think about it. On the other hand, his wincing, slightly superior manner - his teeth are permanently clenched with embarrassment, and he would clearly rather die than attempt to look even remotely animated - starts to get on one's nerves after about, oh, ten minutes. The more the actors around him ham it up, the stiller he seems to get. By episode six, he'll probably just lie horizontal on his grandmother's sofa with his eyes closed, while the rest of them get on with reading his sometimes hilarious but sometimes rather laboured script.

But I'm running away with myself. Amstell is a former Nickelodeon and Popworld presenter who hit the big time when he replaced Mark Lamarr as presenter of Never Mind the Buzz­cocks, where his stock-in-trade was the pop star insult. Apparently he was very good at this, though I'm afraid I'll have to take other people's word for that, because life is too short to watch Never Mind the Buzzcocks, even for those of us who used to subscribe to Smash Hits. I have never seen him take the mickey out of Simon Le Bon, Fish, Meat Loaf or whoever, and probably never will now. Anyway, having done this gig for a while, Amstell announced he was leaving: he wanted to do something else.

Grandma's House is that something else, the conceit being that Amstell plays himself, a former presenter of a pop quiz. In episode one, he tells his family - loud, argumentative, Jewish but entirely fictional (I think) - the important news that he is giving up his high-earning job. This does not go down well. His mother, Tanya, played with grasping brilliance by Rebecca Front, says: "It's the only thing that gives me joy. I haven't got a life. I can't eat crisps." His grandma (Linda Bassett) says: "He's probably joking. Does he want a banana, maybe?" And his cabbie grandpa (Geoffrey Hutchings) says: "Do you want to do the Knowledge?" The joke is that Simon is the only sane one in a family of pushy Ilford weirdos. Except that you could probably meet such pushy Ilford weirdos in any small branch of Marks & Spencer - they'd be either by the support tights (tan) or considering the chilled individual trifles - whereas Amstell is a bit of a one-off.

I like the family, especially Tanya, whose monstrous, competitive, divorcee neediness I recognise (and no, I'm not talking about myself). But the person I'm crazy for is her fiancé, Clive (James Smith, best known as the slightly camp spin doctor in The Thick of It). He is grotesque. The clumsily dyed hair, the too-blue jeans hitched to somewhere just below his nipples, the obsession with cars and the best cooking time for meat, the way he shouts even the most banal of comments - all these things are close to clichés when it comes to look-which-repulsive-creature-is-sleeping-with-my-mum jokes. But Amstell has given this fellow something else. He is very possibly mad. On discovering that Simon likes only dark chocolate, for instance, he says: "Once you've tasted the dark, you don't . . . bark." And, long ago, he ran over a tramp and killed him.

In the second episode (16 August), which you haven't seen, but I have, he will ask Simon to "step into my office". The room whose door he is holding open when he says this is a loo, Simon's grandma's downstairs loo. I like this kind of stuff - tramp killing excepted, of course. I think people are mighty strange, and relish anything that acknowledges this truth. But I've no idea whether I'll still be with this show come September. I worry that Amstell is not quite as clever as he thinks he is.

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 16 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The war against science