From the trusted pens of Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin. and featuring a strong cast of comedy stars, Channel 4’s new Election-centred sitcom, Ballot Monkeys launched last night, focusing on the backstage goings-on aboard the Labour, Conservative, Lib-Dem and UKIP ‘battle buses’. Generally, it seemed to immediately impress viewers and critics alike – but left me slightly uncertain.
Hamilton and Jenkin are renowned for their rather unorthodox approach to making comedy; their last hit series before Ballot Monkeys, Outnumbered, was of course semi-improvised, and Drop the Dead Donkey, their 90s sitcom set in a television newsroom, often would not complete recording until a few hours before transmission, meaning that the tapes would have to be rushed to Channel 4 in time for their 10pm airing. Ballot Monkeys is filmed in a similar way, with much of the script not actually written until the last minute, allowing for as many topical gags as possible.
And in that respect, Ballot Monkeys worked very well – the stand-out moments from the episode were indeed those that referenced events of the past week. So, a fictional UKIP candidate calling the migrants who recently drowned off the coast of Libya ‘Labour’s new floating voters’, and two Liberals watching with horror Paddy Ashdown’s expletive-laden BBC News interview provided what were, for me, two of the most memorable and enjoyable scenes of the episode – but neither of which could have been achieved if the script had been written weeks in advance.
However, as is the obvious flaw in making TV in this way, it allowed the show to have a slight air of being tossed together at the last moment, and consequently not seem as consistent in quality as it arguably should have been. The hit-rate of gags was lower than I expected of the writers and assembled cast (which included Ben Miller, Sarah Hadland and Hugh Dennis) – and, while the episode was peppered with gems such as those mentioned in the previous paragraph, and smart one-liners from Sarah Hadland’s disastrous UKIP logistics advisor, I even thought that the satire on which Ballot Monkeys apparently prides itself was lacking true bite. The Herald’s Julie McDowall claimed that Ballot Monkeys ‘packed a far stronger satirical punch than ITV’s Newzoids’ but I would even have to disagree with that; for me, Newzoids’ portrayals of the political parties and their leaders were far more effective than those of Ballot Monkeys. And let’s face it: when someone thinks that your satire is inferior to that of a group of impressionists who use puppets and comedy songs as their main weapons, something has to be lacking.
So, perhaps it was just a quiet week for politics but this opening episode of Ballot Monkeys certainly didn’t get my vote in the way that it did other critics. What I believe it did do right, however, was hint at the rather shambolic decisions and ludicrous discussions that are made and had on the main parties’ ‘battle buses’ – so much so that it struck me as the right decision for Channel 4 to have scheduled it the day after the deadline for voting registration, because, if the characters in the show are at all representative of the campaign teams themselves, who’d let anyone like that run the country?Image credit: Thanks to Channel 4, Nicky Johnson and Hat Trick Productions
Ballot Monkeys is on Tuesdays at 10:00pm on Channel 4
What did you think of Ballot Monkeys? Do you agree or disagree with my review? Please comment below or tweet me – @UKTVReviewer