Whether or not you laugh at Chivalry might depend on how familiar you are with the verbiage of the post-#MeToo world. Written by its two stars, Steve Coogan and Sarah Solemani, it satirises attitudes to the systematic abuse of women within the entertainment industry, which may not sound fun. Then again, shows about the entertainment industry will always fascinate: did you know, for instance, that there now has to be a third person present during any conversation about a sex scene? And an intimacy consultant on set, partly to avoid male directors automatically asking female stars to do stuff that may not be realistic but that men like to watch?
This is the focus of the first two episodes of Chivalry, which will air back-to-back on Channel 4 on 21 April. Upcoming director Bobby Sohrabi (Solemani) is drafted in to save a movie called A Little Death, whose director has died, and which has stalled around a bad sex scene. In the words of the film’s gloriously deranged star Lark, played by Sienna Miller, Bobby is “the feminist the studio have brought in to put the dinosaur’s dick in the mangle, and reshoot the scene which I told you was lame and you didn’t fucking listen”. The scene involves a female member of the French Resistance getting banged by a German SS officer – a love that dare not speak its name. But with Lark handcuffed to the bed and moaning submissively, it all feels a bit 1992. “It’s just a thing being fucked by a man,” says Bobby disapprovingly. “But she’s a honey trapper!” says Coogan, as the producer Cameron O’Neill. “They existed! What else does she offer to lure them into her trap – air miles? Tickets to Hamilton?”
I wrote that down because it was the only traditional joke I caught in Chivalry – as in, a line that makes you laugh. Chivalry is a “thinker”; it’s no Toast of Tinseltown. Is it overwritten? The clever lines – they don’t stop coming – don’t seem to have much of a set-up, much space to breathe. Solemani and Coogan started their complicated conversation when they met on the set of the Michael Winterbottom film Greed: Coogan would tease her about what he was and wasn’t allowed to say these days (“You can’t even describe people with adjectives anymore,” says his character). Coogan, as we know, likes to play sheepish echoes of his real-life self; he has dated an underwear model half his age. He is his own ongoing project in self-interrogation or confession. And Solemani has produced some worthy work fitting of Bobby Sohrabi, including a play inspired by Owen Jones’s Chavs. Chivalry, she has said, is an attempt to “engage in a dialectic” about gender politics – and so a kaleidoscope of viewpoints is on display, from the slippery producer paying lip-service to the new rules while continuing to get it on with young women on set, to the actress, a tragic cocktail of neurosis and power. She’s suffered abuse to get to where she is and has finally realised she can talk about it – if only someone would listen. There are cameos from Paul Rudd, shooting another film (“I’m going to grab an almond butter”), and John C Reilly, as an original sex pest.
The relationship between Coogan and Solemani irritated me somewhat: they’ve barely met, and she’s berating him for dating his assistant while he gives non-apologetic Partridgean shrugs. But thinking about it all now, I’m impressed at the show’s complexity, its love of grey areas – such as when Bobby insists on getting the creative input of a young black runner on set. The runner suggests that maybe the sex scene would come alive “if she squirted or something”? Replies Bobby, her mouth set: “I’m just not sure if squirting is real in terms of believability. Actually, can we put that lunch order in?” There’s also a powerful moment where she abuses her own power with a younger male actor.
We’ll look back in curiosity at shows like this, a snapshot of our times, with their stock characters, their complex ideas and their slowly percolating humour. I hope it warms up, and I hope the characters surprise us. But while I was watching – and I get this with lots of Coogan’s recent work – I had a shameful pang for the comforting days of canned laughter, when I didn’t have to make up my own mind about whether something was funny.