Thursday, 14 May 2009

Stuff's guilty secret - in praise of 'Two Pints...'

I have a guilty secret. I can’t keep it in any longer, it’s tearing me up inside. I have to let it out. You see…wow, this is so difficult…I…I have an addiction. I can’t shake it. I know it’s wrong, I know it’s not really meant for me, I know it’s for the kids but… Well, I thought I could shake it off just by looking away. I thought I could handle it…but I can’t. I’m hooked. I’m line and sinkered too… You see…gulp…and I hope you don’t lose your respect for me and walk away from Stuff forever…but…

I’m a fan of ‘Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps.’ There. It’s said. I feel better now. The Sitcom That Dare Not Speak Its Name is must-see TV round Stuff Towers and whilst I wouldn’t wander the streets with a ‘Gaz Wilkinson Forever’ T-shirt I feel it’s time to stand up and be counted and say a word or two in support of one of the BBC’s longest-running comedies, a show tucked away on BBC3, a series almost always vilified as puerile, filthy, lewd, crude and loud. Yep, it’s all of these things and more – but that’s why we ‘Pinters’ (as I like to think ‘Two Pints’ fans might call themselves) love it so much. ‘Two Pints’ has no pretensions to being anything other than what it is and what it was always intended to be – a raucous, shocking comedy for the late teens and the early twenties who still snigger at the word ‘t*ts’; I’m…well, considerably outside the show’s intended viewer age range but I enjoy ‘Two Pints’, crudity and all, because it’s funny. It’s actually really very very funny. Sometimes even laugh-out loud funny. And I’d dare you to say that about ‘After You’ve Gone’ or ‘Last of the Summer Wine’. Or even ‘Parents of the Band’ (remember that stinker?).

A little bit about the show for those of you who don’t watch it or who’d rather not go there. Conceived by young writer Susan Nickson in 2002 ‘Two Pints…’ a comedy set in the North of England for kids obsessed with booze, going out, sex and shallow relationships, The series debuted on BBC2 and was almost immediately ripped to shreds by the critics. The song’s remained the same ever since – although these days the critics don’t even bother with it and when it does get any publicity it’s usually in conjunction with the words “dreadful” and “unfunny.” I say ‘pah’ to all that. If you can get into its gutter-level mindset ‘Two Pints’ can be hysterically funny with some genuinely sharp wordplay and some beautifully-judged comic dialogue, albeit most of it punctuated with the sort of extreme language, imagery and innuendo we’ve not really seen anywhere on TV before. Sometimes even I’m shocked by some of the stuff the characters come out with on ‘Two Pints’ – but I’m not sad enough to be so shocked that I’m offended by it or feel the need to fire off an ‘Angry of Cardiff’ letter to the BBC or Ofcom or any other busy-body TV watchdog set-up. I know by now what to expect of ‘Two Pints’ and I sit there and I brace myself; I’m rarely disappointed.

Anyway, the show’s about the lives and loves of a gang of pretty hopeless ‘kids’ (although most of the cast are rushing towards thirty now and Will Mellor’s about 33!) in glamorous Runcorn. Inititally there were five core characters. Feckless layabout Jonny (Ralf Little) was obsessed with lounging around, drinking down the pub with his mate Gaz, his live-in girlfriend Janet and jammy dodgers – in no particular order of preference. Chavvy Janet (Sheridan Smith) sat about in shellsuits smoking for Britain and occasionally working in a bakery. Feisty, fiery Donna (Natalie Casey) worked in a factory but yearned for more than the bright lights of Runcorn – her dream was to live and work in That London, so far away it might as well be another planet. Then there was Louise (Kathryn Drysdale), shrill, neurotic, self-obsessed and…well, just plain odd. Gaz (Will Mellor) was the cocky, single-minded, sex-mad car mechanic, Jonny’s best friend. As the series kicked off all those years ago Jonny introduced his best mate Gaz to Janet’s friend Donna…and a saga began which has run an astonishing eight years across eight series (the longest series clocking in at an amazing sixteen episodes).

Never less than brash and in-yer-face, ‘Two Pints’ eventually migrated from BBC2 and found its spiritual home on BBC3, the ‘yoof’ channel, where repeats of its old episodes seem to bulk up much of the channel’s schedule and each new series ticks over with a steady, committed audience. But over the years ‘Two Pints’ has become much more than its critics – most of whom probably watched one episode before dismissing it out of hand – have ever given it credit for. In the middle of all the vulgarity and filth ‘Two Pints’ has a very real heart and placed its characters in fraught, emotional situations which have been as heart-wrenching and potentially tear-jerking as any more melodramatic soap opera. Across eight series ‘Two Pints’ has done it all; birth, marriage, affairs, two-timing, double-crossing, traffic accidents and even, at the end of series six when Ralf Little decided it was time to grow up professionally, death, when his character Jonny was written out in a tragic shark-jumping escapade gone wrong (a post-modern plot twist not lost on those familiar with contemporary TV shorthand). Losing a cast member – especially from a cast so clearly well-knit as this one – can sometimes be catastrophic and upend the creative karma but, two series on, ‘Two Pints’ is as big and boisterous as ever with new cast members effortlessly stepping in to fill the Jonny-shaped void such as Tim (Luke Gell), the stocky, camp new manager of the Arches pub where the characters spend at least half of their waking hours, and Wesley Presley (Thomas Nelstrop) , Donna’s cockney boyfriend from her in-between-series time spent carving out a short-lived new life in That London.

‘Two Pints’ is also unafraid of experimenting and innovating with the sitcom form. Over the years the show has broken most sitcom conventions with Susan Nickson, long since joined by other writers, keen to make her cast earn their pennies and flex their thespian muscles. Over the years ‘Two Pints’ has delivered a musical episode (recalling how Janet and Jonny first met), a very impressive live episode (where Nickson really put the cast through their paces with stunts, song and dance routines, tongue-twisting dialogue), a Comic Relief special, a gore-filled horror special, a two-hander between Janet and Gaz and a couple of ‘you decide the outcome’ phone vote episodes where viewers effectively dictate the future direction of the series, most recently in the last episode of this most just-finished series where Gaz, having taken up with Janet in the wake of Jonny’s ‘death’ (and I’m still expecting Ralf Little to wander back into the show at any moment, to be honest), finally had to make his mind up whether he wanted to stay with Janet or resume his relationship with his ex-wife Donna.

So there’s more to ‘Two Pints’ than just young people shouting and swearing at each other. Beneath all the creative cursing and vulgarity it’s got heart, emotion and, most importantly of all, characters you can’t help liking, caring about and rooting for. Britain never really managed to create a comedy series evoking the spirit of ‘Friends’ – ‘Cold Feet’ was often touted as the British answer – but in reality ‘Two Pints’ comes a bit closer with its wilful mix of farce, slapstick, coarseness (not really the domain of the Central Perk crowd) and some real ‘stop you in your tracks’ emotional beats.

Ultimately ‘Two Pints’ just isn’t to everyone’s taste; it’s probably too abrasive for a big mainstream audience but it’s honest, it’s unpretentious and its lively and attractive cast just make it fun to watch if you can cope with the earthiness.


Sunshine Superman said...

Two Pints is wonderful, yes, but not the British 'Friends'. That distinction goes to the brilliant 'Coupling', which lasted for four series. Written by a man you may possibly have heard of, one Steven Moffat. Jevver watch any 'Coupling'? Surely you must have? If not, risk a few quid and try Series One now....

Paul Mount said...

Oh yes, I have the four series boxset. It's a great show (although the fourth series went off the boil a bit) but at times it seemed a bit too self-consciously 'Friendsy' (I made up a new word!) whereas it just seems to have happened organically on 'Two Pints'. Perhaps because 'Friends' was still running when 'Coupling' was screened, the comparison became a bit too blatant.