Could BBC Three's People Time be the beginning of a sketch show renaissance?

It’s rare to see something at the pilot stage that is so fully-formed and so confident. Also – no small matter, this, for a comedy – it is hilarious.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

My blogging is commonly devoted to film, with occasional diversions into the cinema-related margins, but today I must implore you to feast your eyes on a television sketch show which has not even the most tangential relation to cinema – unless you count the fact that one of its stars, the sublime Claudia O’Doherty (whose Comedy Blaps series What Is Jack the Ripper? is gloriously funny) has appeared in The Inbetweeners 2 and Judd Apatow’s film Trainwreck, and that another, the comic character actor Jamie Demetriou, is in Bill, a jolly new comedy about Shakespeare from the Horrible Histories team, which is now on release.

But then, when On the Hour debuted on Radio 4 in 1991, followed by its TV iteration The Day Today  several years later, there were no cries of, “Oh my goodness, it’s Patrick Marber, [] the future playwright of Closer and Dealer’s Choice!” or “Ooh, Armando Iannucci is involved, he’s going to define the comedy landscape ten years from now!” or “Hey, it’s Chris Morris, one day he’ll be our key satirist and elusive comic enigma, his presence like a robe pontifical, n’er seen but wonder’d at!”

Nope. We just said: This is amazing. Who are these people and where can we see more of them?

This, I feel, will be the natural reaction to People Time, which has been available on BBC iPlayer since July, and is going out tonight on BBC3. It’s one of six TV comedy pilots in the Comedy Feeds strand that are hoping to be converted into an actual series.

And while I’m not suggesting it is yet at the standard of The Day Today, or even the same sort of programme (The Fast Show or Absolutely would be better points of comparison), it is certainly on its way. It’s rare to see something at the pilot stage that is so fully-formed and so confident in its sensibility. Also – no small matter, this, for a comedy – it is hilarious.

The seven comics who have written and performed the sketches may be vaguely familiar but none has yet had much exposure far from the stand-up circuit, specifically the north London club The Invisible Dot, which has been a crucible for their talents.

Alastair Roberts, Daran Johnson and Liam Williams have performed as the trio Sheeps, who have a knack of unpicking the fabric of comedy without spoiling the joke. One of their recent hour-long shows consisted almost entirely of variations on the same sketch that they were supposedly finessing in preparation for playing at Wembley Stadium.

Demetriou has made his own memorable contributions to Comedy Blaps on Channel 4. His sister, Natasia Demetriou, and her comedy partner Ellie White (who starred in Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer’s House of Fools) also appear in the show, notably as an eastern European duo, the Sexy American Girls, whose gyrating, confrontational displays of sexual over-confidence are undercut by their obvious, quivering terror.

The other characters are no less inspired or unorthodox. O’Doherty plays The Luckiest Girl in the World, a character that deserves to become a regular. Williams is an outspoken passerby who goes the extra mile in haranguing a busker and a group of Page Three protestors with exaggerated vitriol.

Johnson is a man who finds the secret to sexual magnetism in one unlikely word.

White can’t make time for old friends because she believes herself quite erroneously to be swamped with important emails. Out of these simple situations arise sharp and subtle playing that exploits the absurdity between what these people think they are, and what we know them to be.

Even the out-and-out lunacy of an advertisement showcasing the Busy Gal, a suit designed to hold three power-dressing women in one flattering garment, draws its humour from the participants’ straight-faced refusal to acknowledge the idiocy of what they’re doing.

A veteran television comedy producer told me a few years ago that TV sketch comedy was effectively dead because sketches tend now to be consumed in individual bite-sized portions, often performed by YouTube’s superstar vloggers. People Time proves at least that the talent is out there; it’s to be hoped that the audience will be too, and that the BBC will commission a series.

Should they do so, it is entirely likely that we will be looking back on People Time in five or ten years as the point where it all began, whatever “it” turns out to be. Meet you back here in 2020 or so to bask in some full-on, told-you-so smugness at all those who failed to take us seriously.

People Time is on BBC3 tonight at 11pm and is available on iPlayer.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.