I love nasty, blood-drawing comedies: Seinfeld, Peep Show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The League of Gentlemen, The Larry Sanders Show (farewell Garry Shandling). These comedies, all now defunct, were wrapped in layers of misanthropy and meanness, where people said and did breathtakingly awful things that you’d never countenance in real life.
But though I might like to think that my comedy heart is made of coal and coated in tar, I am a sucker for old-fashioned silliness. Show me a romcom with a hapless hero who keeps getting into idiotic scrapes and I will follow you like the most obedient Yorkshire terrier.
Take I Want My Wife Back, which starts on BBC1 on Monday. It’s written by Mark Bussell and Justin Sbresni, who wrote one of my all-time favourite sitcoms, The Worst Week of My Life, and stars Ben Miller, who was also in Worst Week, as Murray, a workaholic buffoon. His wife Bex (Doc Martin’s Caroline Catz) leaves him on her 40th birthday, exasperated by his inattention.
I know that audiences get very tetchy about comedy. If a sitcom doesn’t make us laugh within the first two minutes, we’ve mentally sent it, ablaze, down the Comedy River Styx. “But give it time to bed in!” goes the cry from comedy commissioners. Ah, sorry, we can’t. You had your chance. Bye bye.
This might well happen to I Want My Wife Back and I’ll understand why. It’s achingly old-fashioned — there’s a bumbling father-in-law and a nice, peacemaker mother-in-law (played by the ever-lovely Jan ‘Just Good Friends’ Francis); Murray works in a bank and is worried about promotion (do people get promoted any more? Do people actually worry about being promoted any more?); Murray has to provide alibis for his philandering boss; and Murray himself is the love object of a stalkerish, obsessed female colleague.
As for his unfortunate wife Bex (I Want My Wife Back has some woefully underdrawn women characters), she doesn’t seem to do much apart from be a bit scatty and under the thumb of a tough-nut feminist friend. There’s a cringingly bad scene at a book group where the all-female participants do nothing apart from bang on about how awful men are.
Yet, foolishly, I can’t help rather liking I Want My Wife Back. Miller is a deft light comedian, as is Catz, who plays the unfortunate Bex (though she needs to be given more to do). But it doesn’t have a mean bone in its body and it’s silly. It reminds me, too, of comedies from my childhood. Terry Scott would have worn the role of Murray like a leather driving glove, though he didn’t have Miller’s charm.
There should always be room for good-hearted sitcoms. Peter Kay’s Car Share, which has been shortlisted for a Bafta Radio Times Audience Award (vote here!), was lovely: it personified kindness and gentleness in the tentative, growing relationship between John and Kayleigh (Kay and co-writer Sian Gibson). Ruth Jones’s Sky1 comedy Stella, too, has a giant heart.
This could be an age thing, of course. I could just be growing a bit weary of “edgy” and I’m looking for something to feather-bed my dotage. But I can’t be the only one who delights in well-meaning nonsense, surely?
I Want My Wife Back starts tonight at 9pm on BBC1