Steven Moffat’s Joking Apart DVD review

A 90s sitcom with real ups and downs, Joking Apart's DVD release means there's a chance to check out some early Steven Moffat writing...

Both series, now available. Hurray!

“My wife left me”. Strange words with which to open a sitcom – but then, nothing about Joking Apart is particularly run-of-the-mill. The story of a comedy writer going through a divorce – written by a comedy writer going through a divorce – it mixed a curiously dark nature with, at times, outright high farce. Despite high critical acclaim, and a small but devoted fanbase, it failed to garner significant ratings, and its second series was broadcast over a year after shooting on a completely inconsistent schedule. It would therefore seem destined to end up in the pantheon of decent-but-forgotten comedy series were it not for two significant factors.First of all, there are the lengths to which one particularly devoted fan has gone in order to secure a DVD release (of which more later). Secondly, and perhaps more enduringly, is the identity of its writer – one Steven Moffat. Better known now, of course, as one of the best writers in British telly courtesy of his Doctor Who work, his route from Press Gang to cult hero status took in a rather circuitous voyage of sitcoms largely based around his own life – the flop Chalk and the rather more successful Coupling were preceded by Joking Apart, which drew heavily on his own painful experiences of divorce.

But despite the the fact that it is – on occasion – very funny, Joking Apart is a fairly difficult show to fall in love with. The initial hurdles are superficial – it features not only one of the worst opening titles sequences in the history of television, but is also filled with awful, saxopohone-drenched incidental music, and a general look and feel in costumes and sets that seems to date it as earlier than its actual early ’90s timeframe. But quite aside from that, it also suffers from a lack of characters that the viewer can properly engage with.

Lead character Mark, for example, is supposedly the audience’s way in; but while he’s got a knack for good gags, and we sympathise with the plight of his wife leaving him for another man, there’s also a sense that his constant jokiness is actually quite irritating (in other words – his wife had a point), and he becomes increasingly petulant and even pathetic in pining after the same woman as the two series go on. Not that ex-wife Becky escapes with much better – at times, after all, dialogue both by and about her is drawn directly from Moffat’s own life – almost devoid of any real personality to the extent that you wonder just why Mark cares so much about getting her back.

Of the two series, it’s the first that works better; intercutting scenes from the early days of Mark and Becky’s relationship with the “present day” of their break-up – a device dropped for series two – gives Moffat the chance to display his supreme flair with narrative. The farcical situations generally provide the best material – again, Moffat is a master of constructing plots that build and escalate, and at times the cringe factor (in a good way) is at an absolute high.

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One device that certainly doesn’t work, though, is the use of the “stand-up routine” sequences that open the episodes – with jokes themed around the episode’s events, they suffer through Robert Bathurst (otherwise excellent throughout) seeming uneasy in a stand-up persona, and the failure to properly convey that they’re supposed to be taking place in Mark’s head.

Series two, meanwhile, is far more of a mixed bag. There are definitely good moments and lines, but the tone is even more confused – there’s one completely surreal episode where a concussed Mark has conversations with the personification of his own penis – and the emphasis is actually shifted away from Mark and Becky and on to their completely batty friends Tracy and Robert. The pair worked well as comic-relief support characters in the first series, but struggle to carry the plots heaped upon them in the second, despite strong work from Tracie Bennett in particular.

Moffat’s flair for one-liners – it’s worth noting, incidentally, that a line about life being “nature’s way of keeping meat fresh” is used here in a completely different context to when it was recycled in The Doctor Dances – and some genuinely funny farcical set-pieces akin to those later employed by Coupling keep the show rolling along. But it requires perseverance to get through the emotional “drama”, and as much as it pains me to say this about a sitcom, the superficial trappings really do harm it.

The story of the DVD release, on the other hand, is almost enough to make you want to like the series a lot more. It’s a tale of one man’s dedication – pouring far more effort and money than a saner person would into obtaining the rights to, and master tapes of, the show, self-publishing the first series and selling it through mail order on his own website. While not an entirely unique situation, the story helped to drum up interest in the series among the comedy fraternity, and the sales were strong enough for the personal and financial gamble to pay off – and to ensure the release of series two this March.

The extras are a fairly decent selection – with series one, there are enjoyable and nicely enlightening commentaries on four episodes from Moffat and the cast, and a fairly passable (if slightly annoyingly-edited) twenty-minute documentary. Series two, meanwhile, stretches to a two-disc set – with six commentaries, and the inclusion of the original pilot episode on the second disc. That said, given that the pilot is basically a weaker version of the first ep, the second disc is fairly lightweight – it’s a shame that no other nuggets of footage could be found to bulk it out a bit. Still, the second series comes with a well-written booklet, something the budget for the first series presumably didn’t stretch to.

All in all, it’s a good release – not quite at Red Dwarf standards, but it still puts a number of bigger publishers to shame when it comes to packaging a sitcom.

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Disc:

3 out of 5

Extras:

3 out of 5

Both series are available from 17th March at www.replaydvd.co.uk 

Rating:

3 out of 5