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God bless ‘em bloody Royle’s! - THE COMMENTARY

By Joseph Planta

VANCOUVER -- It’s purple, the screen that is. First it’s black then it fuzzes up like a freshly open television -- static and all -- and then the purple. We see a dishevelled heavy set bloke, having turned on his telly, retreat to a recliner chair that’s rather tattered. The players’ names appear, as do they sitting around looking blindly into the set. Then the show’s title. This is the Royle family and the show is aptly titled, The Royle Family. Couch potatoes they are.

The Royle Family happens to be a British comedy and it happens to be damned good; or to borrow from Jim Royle, a bloody good British comedy. British television has the tendency to create programs that run on a limited basis rather than their American counterparts who milk a show to death. Quality is of the essence and rather than make and air shows for 22 episodes a season, the do something like 6 in one year. Ditto with The Royle Family. Starting in 1998, The Royle Family began to air on the BBC, airing 6 episodes. It returned the next year airing 6 more, plus a Christmas show. The pattern was followed in 2000 and since then there’s been no more episodes. Unlike other Britcoms there isn’t that studio audience, so you don’t have the annoying laugh track, and the show is shot like a sort of televérité. It has a unique visual feel to it, and it’s funny too.

The show revolves around a working-class family in Manchester named Royle. (Don’t that make for a catchy title?) Jim Royle, played wonderfully by Ricky Tomlinson, is married to Barbara (Sue Johnston) and they have two kids -- Denise (Caroline Aherne) and Antony (Ralf Little). Denise is dating a dim-bulb named Dave (Craig Cash) and he’s doing the running around, while she sits on her arse, smoking ciggies. The actors aren’t smashingly pretty, and I think that’s the charm of it. Barbara is a frazzled housewife, and Denise’s pal next door Cheryl (Jessica Stevenson) is a fat girl, somewhere in the weight range of 13 and a half stone (for us North Americans a stone is roughly 14 pounds, making Cheryl a heifer weighing in at around 190 lbs.).

Also in for the ride is Twiggy who’s played by Geoffrey Hughes, who we remember from Keeping Up Appearances (he played Onslow). He’s Jim’s best pal who’s known to peddle all kinds of goods like wholesale discontinued Arab shampoo or seconded jeans. Norma, Barbara’s Mum and a thorn to her son-in-law Jim, is played by Liz Smith and she’s a dear. Slightly absent-minded, she’s a scrounging get who’s boned up with perpetual constipation. She’s also known for downing double brandy’s in one go. (All for medicinal purposes she claims.) Joe and Mary Carroll (Peter Martin and Doreen Keogh) are constant drop-ins from next door and they happen to be Cheryl’s parents and Jim and Barbara’s closest friends. Mary is constantly chippy in a total Irish way, whilst Joe hardly says anything. Darren Sinclair-Jones (Andrew Whyment) is Antony’s best mate. He’s slightly dense, and he’s always whacking off meals with Ant, on the count of his Mum constantly in hospital, and his father and brothers are all locked up. Antony’s girlfriend in later episodes is Emma, a delightful girl who gets pregnant, played by Sheridan Smith.

While watching television, they sit around insulting some of the British characters that appear on their screen: the man who hosts the British version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, cookery diva Delia Smith, PM Tony Blair, Ainsley Harriot, Richard Branson, Princess Anne, Joanne Lumley and others. No one is off limits, and bless ‘em for it. They’re biting, witty and downright mean. Words like ‘shite’ and the occasional ‘F’ word are heard, adding to the humour if not the reality of living in a Council house in Manchester. They dig American imports like Ricki Lake, Oprah, and Jerry Springer. The latter whom they absolutely love.

A sign of a good program or film is when, long after it’s over, you care about the characters. Take Cheers for example. Didn’t we care about Sam Malone even though he was a philandering casanova? How about Norm and Vera, even though we never saw her? And of course Carla and her husbands. Ditto for Friends. Even though Joey and Phoebe are dim bulbs and half-wits, they’re charming and comfortable characters we all think we know.

For me, The Royle Family is that. You watch this show and while revolted by Cheryl’s eating, annoyed by her pop Joe’s lack of talking, Darren’s (Antony’s best mate) knicking, Jim’s picking of his ass and ear, Denise’s laziness -- you damn well care because these are characters you know. Who doesn’t hate paying bills? Who doesn’t scratch their ear or other parts? Who can’t stand their in-laws and who wouldn’t want to tell them off? You care about these characters because the two that created them -- Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash, who play Denise and Dave Best -- created such rich characters that resonate long after an episode ends. You also think about what you don’t see in the 22 minutes or so of an episode, and that makes it all the more funny.

The show is topical and entertaining. It’s not really a sitcom, because it doesn’t really deal in situations. It follows the Royle’s as they sit and chat around the old box., musing about the neighbours and life in general. One episode sees Jim Royle slightly annoyed at all the preparations for guests that are over. Barbara says, I’m only doing a finger (food) buffet.” Jim yelps, “Finger my ass!” And then breaks out laughing at the thought of what actually came out of his old gob.

The Royle Family is supposedly a top-rated and well-honoured television program in Great Britain. It’s played in the States on BBC America and here in Canada on the newly minted, BBC Canada. It’s a fabulous break from American schlock like the ageing Friends or the ailing Watching Ellie. The Royle’s speak in a dead British accent that’s too Mancunian that you have to pay close attention or you’ll miss the punch lines or colloquialisms.

Word is that it’ll follow the many British comedies that have been adapted for American television (Sanford and Son, Three’s Company, All In The Family, among others). A pilot has been done but it hasn’t been picked up. I hope it won’t because the things on The Royle Family are indigenous only to Blighty, and an American version would only end up like the failure that was the American version of Fawlty Towers -- Payne, a painful bomb that starred John Larroquette.

Most of all, I love The Royle Family because it’s a remarkable show that has so much beneath the surface of mere acting and dialogue. Like The Simpsons or The Royal Tenenbaums, the characters are seemingly simple yet devastatingly complex and charmingly endearing. This show makes us look at ourselves and our absurdities. It also makes us realise that we all fart sometimes.

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An archive of Joseph Planta's previous columns can be found by clicking HERE .