This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 23 April 2016.
I Want My Wife Back: Monday, BBC One
Michael McIntyre’s Big Show: Saturday, BBC One
Only in the boating pond of gentle British farce do the following vessels collide: meddling in-laws, slovenly best friends, philandering workmates, flirtatious secretaries, easily avoidable misunderstandings and, drowning in the middle, our old friend the harassed, suburban middle-aged man shrugging haplessly.
There’s nothing wrong with these stock devices in and of themselves, it’s just that I Want My Wife Back sticks to them with rigid orthodoxy.
Part of BBC One’s new Monday night comedy power hour – the other half being a curious Peter Kay compilation largely comprised of work he did for Channel 4 – it’s a traditional sitcom starring Ben Miller as Murray, a well-meaning business drone who is dismayed when his wife decides to leave him on her 40th birthday.
Murray is a workaholic, an absent partner, so she’s had enough. The spark has gone. But Murray still loves her (it’s suggested that she still has glimmers of affection for him), so he does everything in his limited power to woo her back.
It’s a half-decent premise, predictably executed. Miller, a competent comic actor, does what he can with his beleaguered nice guy act. But his hunched-up jumble of jittery faux pas can’t disguise the fact that Murray is a bland protagonist. It’s amiable enough, but we’ve seen it all before.
Inevitably, the first episode climaxed (gently, of course) with a surprise 40th birthday party during which everything went wrong. Thanks to the estranged wife’s parents, she and Murray were shipped off to a romantic foreign holiday. Oh the calamity!
The first episode of any sitcom has to work hard to get viewers onside. We need time to get to know the characters and for the situation to bed in, so it’s perhaps unfair to dismiss I Want My Wife Back completely at this point. But there was nothing in this lazy opener to suggest that it will offer any surprises in future.
Joining it squarely in the middle of the road is Michael McIntyre’s Big Show. It’s a shamelessly derivative yet tolerable heap of Saturday night variety flotsam in which the tirelessly mainstream comic unleashes a slick barrage of Beadle-esque disguises, Edmonds-style pranks and Barrymore-shaped japes with the Great British Public.
I’m not a McIntyre fan, although I appreciate his appeal and the skill with which he plies his trade. Delivering trite observations in a consummately professional, excitable simian fashion, he’s the benign king of cuddly comfort comedy. He’s good at what he does, but what he does is of no lasting interest. Nevertheless, it would be silly (albeit funny, a la Stewart Lee) to pretend that he’s detestable in any way.
A seemingly improvised segment with an audience member showed how quick he can be, and the item in which he surprises members of the public is quite sweet. Last week it was a Welsh hairdresser who dreams of becoming a professional singer. Big-hearted McIntyre rewarded her with a Michael Ball duet. Surely every girl’s fantasy?
There was music for the kids from Tinie Tempah, old-fashioned novelty from some acrobats, and a mildly amusing skit involving Geri Halliwell (she’s apparently a Horner now) during which McIntyre harmlessly bothered people in her mobile phone address book.
All in all, a passable rival for Ant & Dec on t’other side.
And if we must have MOR comedians, then I’d rather McIntyre over John Bishop. McIntyre has some presence at least. Bishop is just a man who says things.