Thursdays nights are quickly becoming the night for TV comedy, with most channels appearing to choose them as the testing ground for new ideas. Take most of ITV2’s panel shows, for example, or Sky Arts’ new ‘Silent Comedy Season’, due to begin this week (10th September). Even Have I Got News For You abandoned its usual Friday night slot a few years ago to test the pre-weekend waters. Thursday is also the night that BBC2 have chosen to launch their new comedy double-bill. Preceding Boy Meets Girl was Cradle to Grave; a sitcom based on the autobiography of Danny Baker, and co-written by both him and Jeff Pope, the man behind some of the most successful television biopics of recent years – Cilla, Mrs Biggs and Lucan, to name just a few.
The series focuses on a 15-year-old Danny (Laurie Kynaston, pictured right) and his struggles to navigate his way through adolescence during the early- to mid-70s while also living at home with his rather eccentric family – and they don’t come much more eccentric than his dad, Fred. Known to all as Spud, Danny’s dad is a loud and proud docker, with a penchant for a scheme or two but overarching love of his family.
On the surface, Cradle to Grave has all the makings of a hit series. As well as borrowing some of the gravitas that its writers bring, it stars Peter Kay (pictured, below left), fresh from his own record-breaking sitcom, Car Share, and promises huge amounts of positive 70s nostalgia (which one feels the BBC is in dire need of at the moment). Despite these undoubtedly bankable qualities, however, this opening episode of Cradle to Grave appeared to miss the mark somewhat. It certainly wasn’t owing to any failure on the part of nostalgia; Danny Baker’s narration at the beginning of the episode gave it its undeniable autobiographical feel and cemented it firmly in 1974, a time that was subsequently portrayed as one of reckless youth for Baker and strong domestic unity for the nation as a whole. Rather, the problem seemed to arise from characterisation – or lack thereof. Other than Danny himself, the only character that the audience was given time to become familiar with was Spud, his father. By the end of the episode, we understood that he was something of a Del Boy character; boisterous and crafty but with a strong love and appreciation of his family. If I were being particularly harsh, however, I would suggest that Spud only stood out among the rather more ‘beige’ characters because he was both played by Peter Kay and easily comparable to that familiar ‘Del Boy model’. Portrayed by a less well-known actor and distanced from any kind of stock characteristics, I expected he’d fade into the background like everyone else.
Another issue that was particularly noticeable throughout most of the episode but did seem to be resolved within the final ten minutes was that of Baker and Pope’s transference of anecdotes from the page to screen. Naturally, as this series is based on Baker’s Going to Sea in a Sieve memoirs, there will be many stories to fit into the eight episodes. Arguably, the best method of dealing with this would have been for the writers to select the best anecdotes, and the ones on which they could focus and elaborate most easily, and include just one or two in each episode. This way, there could have been more than one plot in each episode but the rather clunky series of disconnected vignettes that we saw during a lot of this first instalment could have been avoided. I’m sure that all of the little anecdotes in this episode were hilarious in print, as a reader is given the opportunity to play them out in his or her own mind – a bit like when everyone tells you, ‘the book’s always better than the film’ – but on screen they simply seem less remarkable. In fact, I’m afraid I found myself wishing that they would end soon, so that I could find out what the real plot of the episode was. Slightly like having to sit through the trailers in the cinema.
Cradle to Grave was in no way a bad sitcom – it was just slightly hazy in places. I’m hoping, though, that as the weeks pass and we spend more time with the Bakers, the laughs will increase as either we become more familiar with the characters or the writers hit their stride. Or both.
Cradle to Grave is on Thursdays at 9:00pm on BBC2
What did you think of Cradle to Grave? Do you agree or disagree with my review? Please comment below or tweet me – @UKTVReviewer