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Nothing new under the sun

This comedy-drama aims for warmth but settles for warmed-over gags

<strong>Sunshine</strong> BBC1

Is there enough warmth on television? Craig Cash, who has co-written Sunshine (Tuesdays, 9pm), a new comedy-drama, thinks not. He would like to see more "warmth" and to experience fewer "cringes". So far as cringes go, all I can say is: he should probably avoid watching Alan Yentob's new series, The Story of the Guitar. But when it comes to warmth, I think he is wrong: the tog rating of an average evening of British television would get most people through a night's camping with Ray Mears at least.

From Mutual Friends to The Secret Millionaire, most of the shows are written and directed with the specific aim of getting audiences to smile wryly at the same time as they wipe a pathetic, mawkish tear from the corner of their eye. This is what makes Peep Show - which, to my utter amazement, is to be remade for an American audience - so revolutionary. Like some industrial deep freeze for comedy, it just gets colder and colder.

But perhaps Cash doesn't mean warmth so much as an old-fashioned sense of place, of community - because, despite his mildly edgy credentials (he co-wrote The Royle Family with Caroline Aherne) and the fact that it stars Steve Coogan, Sunshine feels, and sometimes looks, like the bastard child of Coronation Street and a Hovis ad. I didn't actually spot any cobbles, I admit, but neat terraced houses, beery working men's clubs and fuggy betting shops were all much in evidence - particularly the latter (Coogan's character, Bing, is a gambler whose habit is about to bring the bailiffs to his family's door). So, too, were beef-spread and fish and chips.

Its comedy is of the kind that used to make me laugh as a child. Bing works as a dustbin man and, at one point in the opening episode (broadcast 7 October), his colleague Bob (played by Cash) was greeted in the street by a blonde in a satin negligee who pointed her breasts at him and asked if he'd take her settee away. When he refused, she drew her matching wrap across her chest and shouted the odds. Hee hee. Aren't women naughty? Aren't they obvious?

There was also a gag about how no one likes piccalilli (not Bing, not a tramp, not a tramp's dog), a fart joke (the hapless Bing let one rip when it was very important indeed that he be absolutely silent), and a scene in which Bernadette (Lisa Millett), Bing's long-suffering girlfriend who works as an estate agent, showed a couple into the bathroom of a house only to find a giant and monstrously smelly turd in the loo.

Is this warmth, or are these just the jokes that time forgot? Cash's big problem is that Gavin and Stacey has set the bar inordinately high when it comes to the territory he is chasing. And G&S reflects the real world in a way that Sunshine, with its kid narrator - Bing's son, Joe - does not. Joe's cute northern wisdom - "Grandad says he could charm the nuts off a squirrel" - makes me feel a bit sick. Plus, the jokes in Gavin and Stacey are funny and often very rude, something that gives its writers a free pass to indulge in the soppy stuff.

And what of Coogan? He's not bad as Bing; he can goof with the best of them, and Bing, desperate to avoid being chucked out by Bernadette, is keen on goofing: make the wife laugh and she'll forgive you anything. He's fine at pathos, too, looking suitably ashen when he loses on the nags. But he is not lovable. I can't explain why, but he just isn't - and this is the one quality he really needs, in what I'm guessing will be ultimately a tale of redemption.

It is odd that Coogan has decided to take the role. In the US, his film career is finally taking off. Sort of. So why isn't he lying by the pool at the Château Marmont, gently sunning his ego? I'm damned if I know, though he is also about to embark on a British tour that will disinter Alan Partridge et al. His choices are often a bit odd.

But with Sunshine, I wonder . . . Does he look at the late bloom of Ricky Gervais and hope for his own sleeper hit on BBC America? It's just a thought.

Pick of the week

Stephen Fry in America
Starts 12 October, 9pm, BBC1
Britain's favourite brainbox takes a ride across the States in a black cab.

Wired
13 October, 9pm, ITV1
Can a thriller about dodgy bankers outdo the grim reality?

The Shooting of Thomas Hurndall
13 October, 9pm, Channel 4
Drama-doc account of the killing of a peace activist by the Israeli army.

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 13 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The facade cracks