American comedian Johnny Lazar (Tim Guinee) recently arrived in the UK, observes a gangland killing on the streets of Soho. As a witness, Johnny finds he’s a person of interest from both sides of the law ….
Simply Media continues to trawl through the Channel 4 back-catalogue with this two-part serial from 1993, written by Lynda La Plante and produced by Verity Lambert.
Within the first few minutes Johnny’s character has already been deftly painted – he’s an uncontrollable loose cannon (shooting his mouth off on a top American chat show is one of the reasons why he finds himself unemployable in his own country).
Given the generous running time (two episodes each of approx. 107 minutes) it’s slightly odd that Johnny witnesses the murder so early on in the first episode. The story might have benefitted from having a little more time to set up the characters and the milieu.
But even though the first twenty minutes seems to fly by at breakneck speed, all the essentials are put in place. We meet some of Johnny’s fellow comics, such as the cynical Haggis (Alex Norton) and the firmly traditional Graham Redcar (Graham Fellows). Fellows, no stranger to comedy himself (Jilted John, John Shuttleworth) was a wonderful casting choice. Graham is a strictly old-school turn, dressed in a smart dinner jacket he seems very out of place amongst his shabbier fellow performers. His insistence that you don’t have to descend to gutter language in order to amuse (instead he puts his faith in his hand puppet) is another obvious way in which he differs from the crowd.
Whilst it’s true that Londoners are very phlegmatic, it slightly stretches credibility that somebody could be shot multiple times right in front of a crowd of people with nobody reacting. You’d have thought somebody might have screamed at least once ….
But then some of the plotting of Comics is slightly suspect. We see the murdered man, Johnny Fratelli, walking past Anthony Fratelli’s (Stephen Greif) car. Given that Johnny was shot on his cousin’s orders (and that a briefcase was the prize) why choose to murder him in such a public place? It would have been far wiser to dispose of him in secret, that way obtaining the briefcase would have been straightforward (whereas here it’s not picked up in the melee).
It’s always nice to see Stephen Greif and although he’s rather typecast as a villain, since it’s a role he always plays so well I’m not going to complain. A number of other familiar faces (some already established, others just making a start) also appear – such as Danny Webb and Lennie James.
Brian Duffield (Webb) thinks that Johnny has the potential to hit the big time. The culture clash between the two – Johnny’s never heard of the likes of Rik Mayal, Ben Elton or the BBC – is nicely done, leading us to the punchline where Brian proudly tells him that he should be able to get him a spot on the Des O’Connor show. Needless to say, Johnny’s never heard of Des either ….
One plus point of Comics is the way that it intercuts an examination of the comedy scene in the UK with a straightforward police procedural (as the hunt for Johnny Fratelli’s killer begins in earnest). There’s some spiky satire directed at the comedy world – Duffield, with his brick like mobile phone and his rampaging desire to make Johnny a star, is the archetypal manager whilst the appearance of Michael Aspel helps to anchor the serial to the real world.
Johnny’s meltdown on the Aspel show (launching into a routine about guns and sex which I assume was intended to be shocking but today seems rather tame) shows the way his mind is currently functioning, i.e. not very well. But with one of his fellow comics recently murdered (he was mistaken for Johnny) it’s possibly not surprising that he’s becoming increasingly flaky.
Tim Guinee had to tread a delicate line. Johnny is often boorish and monosyablic, but Guinee also has to make him sympathetic, otherwise Comics would be a slog with an unlikable character at its heart. Guinee succeeds in teasing out the more vulnerable side of Johnny’s nature from time to time, so overall he gives a very rounded performance.
Although a little unfocused in places, there’s still a great deal of interest to be found in Comics, especially the depiction of the seedier end of the comedy circuit featuring a disparate group of characters all dreaming of a chance to make it big. Having the likes of Graham Fellows in the cast helped to add a layer of authenticity and it’s interesting to learn that Jo Brand was also approached.
Comics features a female performer, Rebecca (Jenny Galloway), who has more than a touch of Brand about her. It looks as if the part was originally written with Brand in mind, as touched upon during this interview.
A favourite of LaPlante’s, Comics slowly ramps up the tension before climaxing with a more than satisfying conclusion (followed by a touching coda). Propelled along by a very strong cast, Comics is an intriguing drama from the earlier days of C4 and is well worth your time.
Comics is released by Simply Media on the 21st of May 2018, RRP £19.99. It can be ordered directly from Simply here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).