BBC2 / BBCHD - 2nd and 9th July 2009 -10.00pm
Episode Three opens in very confident style. A nightmarish, colourfully garish 'Clown Court' where Mr. Jelly is accused of stealing Mr. Jolly's act and then told 'you killed her, didn't you'. Anyone tuning in at this point must have thought they'd gone mad because it's quite simply one of the oddest things that's been seen on British television for a while. It's beautifully and simply put together by director Matt Lipsey who then goes to town on dutch angles and wide lenses, dropping in litle moments such as the little girl in a party frock bashing away on a typewriter like some diminutive court stenographer. It culminates in a life sized Mr. Punch slicing off Mr. Jelly's hand. Somehow, I can't see this being a Christmas panto at Drury Lane.
Dawn French provides another helping of malignant put downs ('I see Dr. Miriam Stoppard has snuck back in. Hello, Miriam? How's Tom? Oh, no. Sorry, of course she left you for Felicity Kendall') as she introduces her class to a birthing pool. French has been perfect for the role of Joy Aston, providing a strained pathos for a clearly delusional woman whilst also being brilliantly acerbic in her observations of mums to be.
The Sowerbutts are also at their revolting best. The scene where Maureen chews a piece of sausage in order to then make it digestable for her repellent son is certainly memorable, especially when there's that great tag to the joke when she makes him use a fork when he tries to pick the part digested food off his plate with his fingers. They realise that their previous murder has now turned into a serial killer spree to kill all those who saw him 'do a bad murder' at the Murder And Chips evening. Meanwhile, in Dudley, the search for Snappy the crocodile goes on with the Crabtree sisters and Mr. Lomax converging on the house of eBay sellers Karen and Bob. Love the reveal of the two sisters pressed up against the patio window.
Perhaps one of the best sequences in Episode Three is the flashback to a younger Mr. Jelly and the complications of the surgery for his RSI (from too many kids' parties) and an origin story for the 'red raw stump' and also for Mr. Jolly, who turns out to be his surgeon. It's genuinely tragic when Jelly wakes up, in full clown make-up incidentally, to hold up his bandaged arm and that pathos is carried by Shearsmith's lovely performance. It's bittersweet, undercut with that gag of both his GP and his surgeon providing a running commentary, and there's a bravura piece of visual storytelling as we see Jelly trained to use his prosthetic limb whilst gradually he gives away all his tricks of the trade as an entertainer to Mr. Jolly who, by the end of the sequence, has donned bright purple gloves and clown make up and stolen his entire act. Wonderfully done.
And it doesn't end there. Flash forward to the present day and there's a frantically hilarious chase sequence round an indoor children's play area (the 'no shoes' gag is great, the soap in the eye moment is hilarious) that is again told in a purely visual slapstick manner, harking back to the masters of silent comedy, including some great hand held shooting too. Back with Joy Aston, a video arriving in the post gives us a clue to how all these characters are connected. And Freddy seems to be acquiring a life of his own as Joy's husband confronts her about her obsession with the doll.
David and Maureen, dragged up as beauticians from The Gentle Touch beauty salon ('...this is Jill Gascoigne and I'm Maggie Forbes'), and here Shearsmith and Pemberton are also clearly giving us an homage to a very similar scene in the cult classic Theatre Of Blood, barge in on Murder And Chips player Cheryl McGinnis (Janet McTeer) to give her a very special make over ('...when I first met Jill, she looked like Brian Blessed, didn't ya Jill'). It's a very funny scene and McTeer is really game to be left to the mercy of Shearsmith and Pemberton.
Back in the panto, midget Robert uses his telekinetic powers to ensure Sleeping Beauty Debbie lives up to her character's name. And the bidding for Snappy the crocodile is a joyous pisstake of anal collectors everywhere as the sellers attempt to pass off a sock with buttons as Snappy and Lomax and the Crabtrees are reduced to insults (...'serves you right for dealing with Mr. Magoo there'. 'That sounds rich coming from a Push Me Pull You').
A fabulous episode ends on a shock revelation as Joy watches the video, featuring all the characters in a mental institution and David plaintively singing "A Land of Our Own" from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and we see Mr. Jolly amongst the medical staff.
Episode Four is a three-hander between Shearsmith, Pemberton and fellow Leaguer Mark Gatiss. I don't quite know what they were trying to achieve by emulating Hitchcock's classic Rope, and similarly using a single set and continuous takes as well as lifting many visual tropes from the film. It opens as the film opens, a slow pan towards an apartment window and then a quick cut to two people strangling a third. The Hitchcock is laid on a little too thickly by having the stabbing strings from Psycho playing over the murder and would seem initially to just come over as indulgence. However, once the body is despatched into an antique trunk, Maureen whips off her marigolds and ironically deflates the tension by comically inflating her gloves whilst Henry Kelly announces on the radio they've just been listening to 'Movie Magic'.
Shearsmith in particular should be singled out for his performance here, perfectly capturing Maureen's exhaustion and world-weariness under the layers of latex. It's a brilliant tragi-comic creation. And after two and a half minutes of no dialogue, Maureen sums it all up with, 'Well, shall I put the kettle on? I'm absolutely gasping!' Whilst David eloquently sums up the serial-killer raison d'etre, Maureen succintly responds with, 'Like I say, it's more-ish' and she is only really bothered about trying out some pyramid tea bags.
In the end, Episode Four is not about the flummery of riffing from Hitchcock's Rope. It is about Maureen as a serial-killer and the revelations about the fate of David's Dad. David maybe obsessed with the history of such killers but it's Maureen who really is a killer even though initially she blames David. As David reels off a litany of poisoners and Maureen, as she dusts the victim's flat, snaps back her cynical responses ('Which Doctor administered lethal doses of hydrobromide?' 'Oh, I don't know. Dr. Legg off Eastenders') it all culminates with the accusation that he poisoned his own Dad with 39 sleeping pills in a dinner of instant potato
Shearsmith and Pemberton are masters of these characters, even if this does disrupt the format of the series at this point, and it's a chance for us to get beneath the surface and find out what makes the Sowerbutts tick. It's pure performance, with little or no incidental music and just a roving camera for company. They breathe some much needed humanity into what were, originally, just a pair of comedy grotesques. The revelations are painful and quite disturbing. And then there's the 'cheering up' tape. Utterly hilarious. Black Lace's Superman Song, a much reviled party favourite, will never be quite the same again. Love the bit where Maureen flutters her cardigan as she does her version of Superman.
They are interrupted by the arrival of Mark Gatiss. He plays Jason Griffin...or does he? We're led to believe he's the James Stewart character and is investigating the Sowerbutts trail of murders. The episode's terrific bluff is that in fact he's an actor who has come to audition for the Murder And Chips troupe. Before he gets to reveal that we are treated to a great bit of line feeding between all three performers. Maureen's description of what they use the Queen Ann chest for (after the requisite boob jokes) is lovely, 'Broken glass, nettles, dead wasps, that sort of thing' and has a Leagueish surreality about it. And Griffin's recital of Freud's theory about each man wanting to sleep with his mother and kill his father is the cue for some further physical comedy from Pemberton. And if you watch Gatiss closely you'll realise that as soon as Maureen mentions police work being more like working in a bank he drops the Griffin character momentarily, offering a glimpse of the man's true identity.
A wonderful, funny episode with one of the highlights being the scene where David attempts to stab Griffin only for the cuckoo clock to go off and the ensuing embarrassed silence broken finally by David proferring a plate of biscuits and simply saying 'Hobnob?'. Hitting the heights of farce with moving dead bodies and covering them with coats, it's at this point that Gatiss turns out to be a very camp amateur actor, who works at the Abbey National, thinking he's come to an audition ('Oh, I'm really nervous. Sorry, I keep trumping. It stinks, ' he says with a waft of his hand).
It concludes with that stunning confessional from Maureen when she's still convinced that Griffin is a real policeman. We find out that Maureen was a battered wife ('He used to beat me. It's what people did before they had tellys') and that she poisoned David's Dad. And that she 'created' David, made him a 'monster'. She has to explain herself when Griffin recounts what she confessed back to David and has just about bluffed her way through when Griffin pops up, discovers the dead body and the whole murderous cycle begins again. A superb script ends with Maureen smiling to herself as David strangles Griffin accompanied by Black Lace's song again. Such a very, very dark conclusion.
Cathode Ray Tube Psychoville League Of Gentlemen Reece Shearsmith Steve Pemberton