House Of Fools episode 1 review: The Conan Affair

Review Ryan Lambie 14 Jan 2014 - 22:30

Vic And Bob return to our screens with the sitcom House Of Fools. Here's Ryan's review of its debut episode, The Conan Affair...

Veteran comedy duo Vic and Bob are perhaps best known for their own brand of surrealist light entertainment, as seen in Vic Reeves Big Night Out, The Smell Of Reeves And Mortimer and Shooting Stars (to name but a few), they've also been known to tinker with the traditional sitcom format from time to time.

In 1992, the pair wrote and starred in The Weekenders, a one-off pilot for Channel 4. Its typically off-the-wall story took in a pub called The Farting Dashboard and The Human League's Phil Oakey selling an unidentified variety of meat in the middle of a playing field. This, unfortunately, was never picked up for a full series.

Twelve years later came Catterick, a six-episode dark comedy with an almost impossible-to-describe plot - Vic and Bob played a pair of neurotic brothers, one an ex-soldier, the other bearded and smitten by his pet turkey, while Reece Shearsmith played a faintly terrifying psychopath who stalked them across the north of England. Screened at weird times of the evening on BBC2 and BBC Three, Catterick was given short shrift by the Beeb and, despite its flashes of brilliance, seems doomed to be remembered as a curious footnote in Vic and Bob's long career.

House Of Fools sees the pair on more conventional territory, at least in terms of its structure. It's a sitcom in the most traditional, 60s and 70s sense of the word, and it's closer in tone to their Slade In Residence sketches on The Smell Of Reeves And Mortimer than the more macabre Catterick.

Bob Mortimer, playing himself, is a seemingly ordinary middle-aged man living in a mid-terraced house in a so far unclear part of the UK. His life is repeatedly turned upside down both by his eccentric neighbours and the various uninvited guests that constantly flow in through his front door. The first and most persistent is Vic, who makes his grand entrance by singing an ode to his favourite medieval gauntlet.

Then there's Beef (Matt Berry) a grandiose hat wearer who may or may not be an out-of-work actor, Julie (Morgana Robinson) the well-spoken and predatory erotic novelist who lives next door, and Vic's ex-convict son Bosh (Dan Skinner), a young man stricken by facial tics and a tendency to steal worthless objects from Bob's house.

Against this rogue's gallery of players, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Bob's the relatively normal straight-man of the piece. But then we learn that he's just as childlike and downright clueless as everyone else, and even more strangely, that he has a reclusive Norwegian son named Erik (played by Daniel Simonsen, who really is from Norway) who spends much of his time locked in his bedroom.

The story behind episode one is simple: Bob's neighbour Beef has set him up with a blind date, and with the lady's favourite film Conan The Barbarian on the television later that afternoon, Bob hopes to spend a quiet afternoon in with his new love interest. But then Vic accidentally breaks Bob's telly with his gauntlet, and between them, the rest of Bob's neighbours and visitors conspire to ruin his day.

Like the recent shows Mrs Brown's Boys, Miranda or Count Arthur Strong, House Of Fools wears its grounding in 70s sitcoms with pride. Its opening credits, complete with catchy theme tune and beige wallpaper, offers a nod to the musical intros written by the late Ronnie Hazlehurst, while the show itself is shot entirely on flimsy sets in front of a studio audience.

Predictably, Vic and Bob use this framework as a basis for their impromptu songs, moments of physical anarchy and off-kilter wordplay. There are even flashes of Vic Reeves' dreamlike artistry at work, with certain flashbacks illustrated via rickety, jerky marionettes.

Not all of the laughs take off as the pair were probably intending, but that's par for the course with Vic and Bob's humour. But even when the gags misfire, House Of Fools is swept along by their innate likeability; as ever, there's something beguiling about Vic and Bob's screen friendship that makes them eminently watchable. Besides, there are moments here that really do work, including a conversation about the arrangement of British TV channels and an incident involving a neighbour and a large hole ill-advisedly cut into a wall.

This first show arguably belongs to Morgana Robinson as the erotic novelist. Capable of striking fear into the male characters' hearts - who never seem to have very much to do with women, despite talking about them quite a lot - she dominates every scene she's in. A brief moment involving Robinson, Reeves and a spoon is genuinely funny.

Just how much you get out of House Of Fools will probably depend on how fond you are of Vic and Bob's boyish comedy, or the sitcom format in general. On the strength of this first episode, House Of Fools could provide the basis for more, even better antics in the weeks to come.

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