The call of the weird

Knights Templar, comedy accents and giant snails? It must be silly season


I must ring my travel agent. Suddenly, the schedules have turned very weird, which suggests to me that summer is here. When they dish up shows that you instinctively know are the cause of some anxiety for commissioning editors, it's time to stock up on factor 20 and obligingly disappear, thus missing the worst offenders.

On BBC1, a series called Bonekickers (Tuesdays, 9pm) has started. It's by Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharoah, the creators of Life on Mars, and it is seriously loony. I was going to describe it - sarcastically - as CSI meets Channel 4's Time Team, but then I read a piece in which Graham described it in exactly those terms, thus providing a fascinating insight into the creative processes of 21st-century scriptwriters: take two successful shows, stick them in the writerly equivalent of a KitchenAid blender, and try not to wrinkle your nose at the resulting dramatic goo.

This particular gallon of goo stars Julie Graham as Professor Gillian Magwilde, leader of a team of archaeologists at the University of Wessex (what a hoot: this surely is where Jude the Obscure would have headed, had Lord Salisbury's government unexpectedly increased university access). In the first episode Magwilde - love the name: it's like Magwitch, only it's . . . not - dug up a piece of wood, cue lots of predictable tosh about the True Cross and the Knights Templar. In week two, she finds a brass pocket watch. Sadly, I won't be around to discover to whom this artefact belonged; by then, I'll be in Tuscany, trying to dodge all the BBC executives in the olive oil shop. But I'd be willing to bet good money that it was William Shakespeare's.

Meanwhile, on BBC2, there is a new sitcom, Lab Rats (starting Thursday 10 July, 9.30pm). I had high hopes for this. It stars and is co-written by Chris Addison, who plays the geeky spin doctor in The Thick of It. I like him. Also, it's about university research scientists. This lot are at St Dunstan's University, which is marginally better than the University of Wessex, but not much - David Lodge: where are you when we need you?

Scientists are a rich, if little-known, seam of comedy: what Kazakhstan is to oil, they are to hilarity. I know this because my father was one, and whenever I used to see him at work, it was only a matter of minutes before I was leaning against his office door, snorting helplessly into the sleeves of the lab coat that hung there. Anyway, I'll save all that for the misery memoir. Back to Lab Rats, which should be filed under "Could Use Some Work".

It had its moments. I like Cara, the Brummie lab technician who powers her calculator using lemons, and Addison, in his new guise as Dr Alex Beenyman, is affably sarky. But his chocolate-loving professor (Geoff McGivern) and the dean (Selina Cadell), who is Dutch, bored me to sobs.

Gags about foreigners speaking funny are beyond pathetic, as 'Allo 'Allo proved. Nor should anyone be allowed to get away with expecting us to honk at the sight of a man in a pink lab coat (Beenyman's got dyed in the wash). Only, well, scientists find these kinds of jokes funny, because they tend to be a bit more retarded than the rest of us, socially speaking - and I mean that in the most loving way, so do stop angrily scratching your beards - and after all Lab Rats is supposed to be about scientists, not for them.

Still, towards the end of the first episode, I sensed the tiniest twitch of emergent originality. Beenyman had been injecting snails with a serum designed to make them bigger, only one had got too big: enormous, in fact (some rubbish CGI here, which made it all the funnier). Our scientist shouted for help, at which point Minty, an old bag-cum-secretary, appeared. Needless to say, she has a Yorkshire accent. "If it's still like that in the morning, I'll get you some salt," she said, buttoning her coat. A great line. If they do more surreal stuff like this, Lab Rats could be a hit. If not, it'll be snuffed out faster than a candle in a bell jar once all the bigwigs get back from Italy.

Pick of the week

Carry On Night
12 July, from 7.30pm, BBC2
An evening celebrating Britain's favourite bawdy comedies. Oo, er.

The Quran
14 July, 8pm, Channel 4
It is frequently cited in the "Islam debate". But what does the Holy Book actually say?

Olympic Dreams
Starts 15 July, 10.35pm, BBC1
Britain's best hopes for 2012.

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 14 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, ‘I’ll leave when I finish the job’