The unbridled, feral strangeness of Camping is the funniest thing I've seen in years

Julia Davis's superbly twisted writing has created a gem. Plus: Scott & Bailey reviewed.

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Camping. It’s no fun, is it? I did it once as a kid and that was enough. Our family and another went to Ingleton in North Yorkshire for what was sold to us as a long weekend of outdoor thrills. Well, it was certainly long. The first evening, as the wind moaned like a fox in season and the rain drove horizontally into our little, prepubescent faces, we each clung to a guy rope for dear life while my stepfather simultaneously bawled at us and pretended to know exactly he was doing, tent-wise. Twenty minutes in to this endurance test, our friends arrived. In their VW van. It looked cosy and it was. With just one flush of their chemical toilet, they were all set, ready for anything. Meanwhile, we prayed either for death, or for it to be Sunday, whichever came first.

Could this be why I think Camping, Sky Atlantic’s new sitcom (Tuesdays, 10pm), is the funniest thing I’ve seen in years? Laughter is better, less hollow and more satisfying, when it comes from a place of deep trauma – though it helps that the writer of this series is the superbly twisted Julia Davis, a woman who looks at the average person and sees, as if in some kind of aberrant X-ray, only weirdness and depravity. Put a bunch of her characters in a tent – to be precise, three tents – and what you’ve got is a recipe for hell, each moment more excruciating than the last as the social embarrassment and grotesquerie grow ever more alarmingly intimate.

The strangeness is unbridled, feral, and yet don’t you get a strong whiff of something similar on any suburban street? Here are the foibles, habits and obsessions of your friends and neighbours, exposed like an animal’s entrails, yes, but amplified for television by only about a notch and a half.

The set-up goes like this. The bumbling Robin (Steve Pemberton) is celebrating his 50th birthday with a camping trip, organised by his über-controlling wife, Fiona (Vicki Pepperdine). Joining them are their friends Adam (Jonathan Cake), a recovering alcoholic, and the weedy Kerry (Elizabeth Berrington); as well as Tom (Rufus Jones) and his randy new girlfriend, Fay (Davis), whose endless groping and drooling not only are sick-making, but underline the others’ dried-up marital chastity. Somewhere in the background is the owner of the campsite, a nameless figure played by David Bamber, whose elderly mother is hidden indoors, unable to eat solid food (“She can only suck now”). We’ve already seen him trying and failing to hose down her commode, and pinning her sail-sized but distressingly stained pants to the washing line. God knows what other acts of filial devotion will follow in episodes to come.

The country air crackles and fizzes with barely suppressed loathing and spite – basically, everyone hates or fears everyone else – and with the dread that Fay and Tom will at some point have sex in front of the group (as opposed to inside the changing room of the antique shop whose owner attempted to sell them an amulet once worn by Ian Astbury of the Cult). Will Tom reveal that his luxuriant new hair is a weave, bought at vast expense to match his Topman makeover? Will Fiona ever release from her clutches her small son, Archie, in whose “elongated anus” she is so disturbingly interested? Will Adam crack and take drink or, more likely, the up-for-it Fay (over the commode, probably)? In such questions lurks so much horror and icky delight, I’m almost tempted to give in and sign up for Sky at last.

Over on ITV Scott & Bailey has returned (Wednesdays, 9pm), as if we needed another cop show. But perhaps we do need this one. Marcella (Mondays, 9pm), starring a parka-clad Anna Friel, strikes me as noir-by-numbers (its writer, Hans Rosenfeldt, brought us The Bridge); the dialogue is clunky, a touch rattled off, almost as if it had been badly translated. But Scott & Bailey still feels – for all that Sally Wainwright has now relinquished control over it – as though it was made by people who care. It has warmth, even when the bodies are piling up, mostly because it’s obvious that ADI Rachel Bailey (Suranne Jones) and DC Janet Scott (Lesley Sharp) get as much fulfilment from their gruelling work as from their sparky, spiky friendship.

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 appears in the 14 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The making of a monster

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