A somewhat traumatic week, as I tried out the BBC’s lame new sitcom I Want My Wife Back (Mondays, 9.30pm), which tries and fails to be a Terry and June for the 21st century (imagine wanting to be like Terry and June). Still, if the experience was excruciating for me, imagine how its star, Ben Miller, must be feeling. Miller is a wonderfully talented comic actor of the old school: slightly posh, a bit bumbling but utterly charming when required, say, to lose his underpants. Unfortunately, this means that he also often gets typecast in material that is long past its sell-by date. Poor thing. If only Julia “Sicko” Davis (see Camping on Sky Atlantic) would come along and save him.
In I Want My Wife Back, by Mark Bussell and Justin Sbresni, Miller plays Murray, who does something in HR – he recently picked up an award for “Relationship Manager of the Year” – in the Brighton offices of a bank. Said offices are completely plastic and populated by clichéd female stalker types, but Murray, it is emphasised, is very high-powered. So high-powered, in fact, that he is apt to neglect his wife, Bex (Caroline Catz), who is in the process of leaving him. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Various things tie her to Murray, chief among them her parents, who adore their buffoon of a son-in-law. If this all sounds a bit retro-hetero-suburban, wait: there’s more. Bex’s mum is played by Jan Francis, aka Penny from the Eighties romcom Just Good Friends. Ye gods. If only Ronnie Hazlehurst had been around to write the theme, it could actually be 1986. I’m afraid there isn’t much more to say. The passive Bex will of course leave (the clue is in the title) and Murray will spend the rest of the series attempting to win her back, losing his dog, car, trousers, wallet, father-in-law, dignity, etc several times along the way.
On a whim, I tuned in to London Live. No, scratch that. I knew exactly what I was doing. After all, if you’re going to close down a newspaper, a British institution, as London Live’s owner, Evgeny Lebedev, has done, you should probably expect someone like me to take a closer look at the assets to which, in your wisdom, you continue to cleave – especially if those assets are losing money (London Live, a local TV station plugged as “the first 24-hour entertainment channel”, hopes to break even in 2017).
Crikey, it was soporific. On air was The Headline Interview, in which Luke Blackall, a former Independent journalist, interviewed Simon Pitkeathley, chief executive of Camden Town Unlimited, an organisation that serves the business interests of the area. I’m sure Pitkeathley and his colleagues do useful work. But did we need to hear him talking about it for 25 unfocused minutes (“business improvement districts . . . blah . . . London Enterprise Panel . . . blah”)? This was followed by the 90-minute lunchtime news – don’t gasp: ordinarily it’s two hours long – and . . . Oh, who’s this? In the presenter’s seat was Blackall again, trying his best to look animated as he introduced an a cappella group from Imperial College. Does Blackall do everything at London Live? Perhaps he does. (“Yeah, I’ll tidy the studio once everyone’s safely watching another repeat of Desmond’s.”)
London Live’s ramshackle news shows are faintly reminiscent of Why Don’t You?, the make-do-and-mend BBC programme that used to be presented by kids in the school holidays. Except they’re a lot less fun, and at least at the end of Why Don’t You? we all knew how to make a pinhole camera. But then the station’s current affairs are little more than a sop: the terms of its licence require it to show eight hours of original programming a day. It fills up the rest of the schedule with movies and endless repeats of London’s Burning and (seriously) The House of Eliott. Is this working for it? According to BARB ratings, London Live’s audience share is now 0.6% of viewing in London. Those who do tune in give it, in an average week, 47 minutes of their time. Why, I wonder, doesn’t Lebedev just – everyone join in now! – switch off his television set and go and do something less boring instead?
This article appears in the 20 Apr 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Shakespeare 400 years Iater