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Laboured and creaky - a comedy to miss

Bob Servant Independent - review.

Bob Servant Independent

Well, that’ll teach me to use hyperbole. In my last column, I reviewed Blandings, the BBC’s new Wodehouse adaptation, and I said it was so awful that watching a Cannon and Ball DVD would be funnier. Which leaves me with a bit of a problem, given that I’ve found something that’s even less funny than Blandings.

How on earth to describe this desperate new series, a comedy that is so laboured and creaky, so utterly plodding and pleased with itself, so desperately old-fashioned and so pathetically in love with its own processes that spending even ten minutes in its company is like sitting next to the worst and most pompous pub bore you can possibly imagine for an unbroken 24-hour period with only one small drink – Malibu and lemonade, probably – by way of an anaesthetic? I don’t know. All I can tell you is that if I was to be stuck in a lift with the person who commissioned it, you might soon be reading about my trial in the gleeful pages of the Daily Mail.

The series in question is called Bob Servant Independent (Wednesdays, 10pm). Bob Servant began his life as the alter ego of the writer Neil Forsyth. When Forsyth received spam emails, he would merrily waste the sender’s time by replying in the voice of Bob, a self-important businessman from Broughty Ferry – it’s just outside Dundee – who made his money in the city’s “cheeseburger wars”. These missives were then collected in a book, Delete This at Your Peril: the Bob Servant Emails, which, in turn, was turned into a series for BBC Radio Scotland.

Alas, emails don’t really work on telly, so now that Servant has made it to BBC4, they’ve changed things round a bit. He’s still a puffed-up, overbearing, delusional twat; but now he’s standing for election as Broughty Ferry’s MP, so the emails have been replaced by rambling and slightly deranged speeches.

Servant is played by Brian Cox and he goes at the job with Total Actorly Commitment: the voice is perfect and so are the mannerisms; it’s as if he was born in Bob’s leather blouson jacket and tweed flat cap. But he’s not funny. He just isn’t. The Total Actorly Commitment – plugging the show on Radio 4 the other night, Cox kept droning on about the “existential” qualities of the Dundonian accent – leaves no room at the edges for the warmth that might induce a smile. And then there’s the dialogue he must deliver, which is so lame, it’s up there with late-vintage Last of the Summer Wine.

Ninety per cent of the jokes in Bob Servant are connected to the fact he’s a hopeless politician, which would just about work if the gap between his aspirations and the reality were a bit smaller. As it is, the gap is so preposterously huge – on the Broughty FM phone-in, he makes crazed promises about banning dogs and handing out disabled parking permits – that you can predict each disaster that befalls him minutes before it happens. Even his extreme vanity is only feebly drawn: the running joke in Bob Servant is – wait for it! – that his house has a big extension.

Perhaps you’re wondering if Bob has a foil. Fatal error: he doesn’t. His young, smooth political rival, Nick Edwards (Rufus Jones), appears only rarely and he’s made of finest cardboard; and his campaign manager, Frank (Jonathan Watson), who used to be “head of sauces” at the burger van business, is just as oafish as he is.

If Frank puts down a bag, you know he’ll leave it behind, dashing hilariously back into shot to pick it up a moment later. And if he organises a political poster? Correct. It will be rubbish. (“Vote for Bob Servant,” said the fluorescent yellow number he unveiled in episode one, “because you know him and he’s OK.”) And if he organises an election meeting with some “young people”? Yes, it will inevitably involve a group of bewildered seven-year-olds whom Bob will abuse wildly, having first forced his ample bottom into a teeny tiny chair. All this is quite bizarre. You could say that it’s as if the people who made Bob Servant Independent had never seen The Thick of It. But it’s much, much worse than that. It’s as if they last watched television in 1985, when some people still smiled at the weekly sight of a parasol collapsing on Terry Scott’s head.

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 28 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After Chavez