Monday, August 16, 2010

Will the real Simon Amstell please sit down?

One thing that always perplexed me about Moving Wallpaper/Echo Beach, ITV’s flawed-but-at-least-they-tried essay in comedic postmodernism, was the acting of Hannah Lederer-Alton, who played teenage temptress Abi Marrack. By most objective standards, this was a car-crash of a performance, a masterclass in how not to do it. But within the universe of the entwined shows, we weren’t necessarily watching Hannah Lederer-Alton playing the role of Abi Marrack in Echo Beach; we were watching Hannah Lederer-Alton playing the role of a bad actress called ‘Hannah Lederer-Alton’ who played Abi Marrack in Echo Beach. The crises and weaknesses of the Cornish soap were, in part, the engine that drove Moving Wallpaper, so it’s entirely plausible that the fictional producers would have cast a very bad actress in the role. It’s difficult to judge whether the real Lederer-Alton is in fact a bad actress, or a good actress who once played a bad actress, because after leaving Echo Beach she put her acting career on hold to go to university. She’s studying drama, since you ask.

There is no such get-out clause in Grandma’s House, the new BBC vehicle for Simon Amstell; no framing narrative that tells us that this is a play within a play, and that the actors are playing actors. This is, for the most part, an old-fashioned domestic sitcom with some top-class performers (Rebecca Front, Linda Bassett, Geoffrey Hutchings) being very funny indeed.

Into which set-up ambles Amstell, playing himself, or perhaps a simulacrum of himself. As the show starts, ‘Amstell’ announces to his family that he is giving up his role as presenter on Never Mind The Buzzcocks (which he has in fact done), because he has become tired of its inherent cruelty. Immediately we have a problem; Amstell’s entire career is based on being rude to pop stars – his on-screen mother encapsulates his purpose in life as “you’re a presenter who takes the pisss out of people” – and once he’s given that up for ethical reasons, there’s not a lot left. Certainly not acting ability; Amstell seems to be delivering his lines at the level of a first read-through, while the other actors are already up to speed.

It’s as if Amstell has watched other performers playing comic versions of themselves – Tony Hancock; Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm; Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in A Cock And Bull Story; the various guest stars, especially Les Dennis, in Extras – and tried to have a go himself. (I touched on this a few years ago, when discussing Brydon’s Annually Retentive.) But while those creations are exaggerated versions of the original, for the most part funnier and more flawed, the ‘Amstell’ in Grandma’s House is nicer and less funny than the Satanic choirboy who abused lame rappers for our delectation. When he’s rude to or about people (such as Clive, his mother’s boorish fiancé), he offers up half-hearted sneering, as opposed to the vicious deflation he deployed against the likes of Preston out of the Ordinary Boys.

So why is Amstell in the role? The only thing he seems to provide as a performer is a veneer of knowing metafiction that makes the show seem slightly edgier and more sophisticated than it really is; “I am here in real life!” he whines, when his family insists on playing a recording of his latest show. In fact, the most effective nod to the collision of realities is entirely accidental, coming when ‘Amstell’’s grandfather confides that he might be seriously ill; watching it, we know that the actor Geoffrey Hutchings died between filming and transmission. It’s as if broadcasters don’t believe that 21st-century audiences can cope with comedy that doesn’t knowingly tap its nose or put exaggerated air quotes around itself. You know, those staid, unfunny shows like Porridge and Rising Damp and Steptoe and Son.

Moving Wallpaper needed the parallel universe of Echo Beach to give it validity, to make it about something. When, in the second series, the fake soap was removed from the equation, the overall product was fatally wounded. Grandma’s House is potentially strong enough to survive without its intertextual nodding and winking. The premise is fine, the cast is excellent, many of the lines made me laugh. Is it too late for a reboot, with Amstell’s character replaced by an entirely fictitious creation, who’s resigned from a fictitious job on a fictitious comedy quiz show? Amstell (the real one) co-wrote the show, so he can clearly do funny; on the evidence of this, though, he can’t actually be funny.

Maybe in the second series they can give the part to Hannah Lederer-Alton. By that time, she may have learned to act.


Rol said...

I never got Simon Amstell anyway. Always preferred Mark Lamarr.

Benjamin Russell said...

I'm not sure about this, but I felt that part of the conceit was that Amstell, whose person on NMTB was so relentlessly nasty, is from a family where everyone is casually cruel. Obviously, this is still predicated on the idea that we are weighing his real-life repuattion against whatever funhouse mirror version of Amstell he's constructed for the show. But it seemed to me that he didn't need to be the Brydon-esque OTT version of himself, that it wouldn't have been appropriate, because we're supposed to see what he's trying to get away from. Not just his persona, but his roots, which led inevitably to the persona. Isn't it allowed for the star of a show not to be the prime motivator and engineer of the action and drama? Can a lead be passive?

I must admit, though, when they talked about him maybe doing some writing, I thought, "He's done that! On SKINS!" I knew it was fake but wanted it to cleave to the real.

Geoff said...

He reminds me of my bemused self in the company of my family. Most of what I say is playing for laughs but I'm best at being the good-listener interviewer who lets the family talk. I'm glad he's back on our screens again as I was pissed off when he left Popworld then when he left Buzzcocks.

Tim Footman said...

Me too, Rol. And I preferred Bamber Gascoigne too. And old money and hard toilet paper. And the 1832 Reform Act was a bit iffy.

Can a lead be passive, Benjamin? Very good point. I'd suggest that Ally McBeal was something of a nonentity, around whom people were funny and clever and mad. And then of course there's Hamlet, who is defined by his inaction, at least until the final stages.

Yes, I also felt a few flushes of recognition, Geoff. But not the hair, thank God.

Anonymous said...

Moving wallpaper - quite liked that. Disappointed it got axed to soon.
Grandma's House - not see it yet. Trailer looks alright. Have to get back to you on that one.