Channel 5's forays into comedy have been tumultuous, to say the least. But in amongst the American imports and endless talking head shows are some hidden homegrown gems. Angelo's may just be the best of the bunch.
Sharon Horgan's journey to the screen is proof that you can have the best script in the world, but it takes a tremendous amount of luck to carve a career. Horgan and Dennis Kelly, who met whilst working in youth theatre, began by writing scripts together and sending them off. Eventually, they wrote material for some sketch shows and won the New Comedy Award, which opened doors into the industry. But it was contributing material to animated comedy Monkey Dust (2003 - 2005) that brought her to wider attention - notably that of producer Harry Thompson, with whom Horgan and Kelly would develop Pulling (2006 - 2009).
But it was Bwark Productions with whom Horgan would team to make Angelo's. Run by Iain Morris and Damon Beesley - not yet the famed creators of The Inbetweeners - the company had a steady slew of sitcoms on its slate, including Free Agents (in which Horgan also starred), and the duo were beginning to make their mark. It would take four years to get Angelo's from script to screen, eventually airing in 2007, with the scripts edited by Robert Popper, now best known for his own later creation, Friday Night Dinner.
Originally, Angelo's was written as a pseudo-reality show akin to The Office, with characters talking directly to the camera. Whilst in development it went through two pilot scripts before Five commissioned the series - one of a number it co-commissioned with satellite broadcaster Paramount Comedy - on the proviso that Horgan ditched the docusoap angle and turned it into a fully-fledged sitcom.
In the press pack for the series, co-star Miranda Hart called Horgan "the mainstream Julia Davis", which, given the acerbic nature of her writing, is an apt comparison and gives you an idea of the kind of comedy to expect. But unlike Davis, whose monstrous characters dominate the screen, Horgan's characters are, if not always likeable, at least redeemable, with shades of grey.
The bulk of the action takes place in the titular greasy spoon café, located just off Trafalgar Square. Steve Brody, who memorably played David Brent's gormless agent in The Office Christmas special, is its eponymous proprietor: an evergreen optimist who, despite being an (Italian) immigrant himself, is worried about the influx of foreigners due to the then-upcoming Olympics. His feckless daughter Maria, played by Shelley Longworth, dreams of escaping the dull drudgery of waitressing to become a famous singer.
Angelo's is a true ensemble comedy with regular barflies just like any other establishment. Horgan herself takes the role of Karen, a police officer who, with Paul Garner as husband and work partner Paul, is struggling to conceive. There's also Maria's best friend Alicia, with whom actor Alice Lowe has tremendous fun and, in many cases, steals entire scenes, such as in Episode 1 when she attempts to impress Maria's boyfriend by demonstrating her less than stellar dance moves.
Then there's Simon Farnaby's Kris, an aspiring thespian who is in reality one of those self-painted human statues who populate any tourist hotspot; and Kim Wall is Russell, a henpecked husband too terrified to tell his wife he has lost his job, so he spends all day in the café instead, a running gag being Angelo's annoyance that he sits for hours with a single drink. Rounding out the regular cast is Javone Prince as Mickey P, Maria's aspiring music star boyfriend, upon whom Alicia also has designs.
Guest stars included Dennis Pennis himself, Paul Kaye, as Paul's obnoxious, sinister brother who is infatuated with Karen; and Belinda Stewart-Wilson, who would go on to play Will's Mum in The Inbetweeners, is the shrewd, savvy businesswoman who, throughout the series, tries to manipulate Angelo into selling the establishment to her conglomerate - Angelo being so optimistically naïve that he fails to notice how awful the deal is.
Horgan is of course a superb writer and her ability to craft fully three-dimensional characters is evident right from the first episode, in which every single major character is introduced with economy and speed whilst still giving everybody their own plot threads.
Much of the humour is drawn from the awkward interactions and social faux pas. Horgan and director Chloe Thomas allow scenes go on just that little bit longer, holding the moment so that the full horror of each scenario can unfold. But the sheer number of regular characters perhaps didn't work in the show's favour: by juggling everybody's screen-time, consequently each plot line is competing for what little space there is. On the other hand, the fact that she manages to handle so many characters whilst giving punchlines to all of them is impressive, and immediately marks Angelo's as a cut above.
In keeping with Horgan's other screenwriting ventures, Angelo's weaves a dark, cynical streak through its heart. Miranda Hart's cab driver Shelley, for example, provides a good running gag in turning up at inopportune moments without an iota of customer care. But Hart imbues her with the desperation of a solitary sad act that shines through in her performance, and it is the same with the vast majority of the other characters. Loneliness forms a part of the DNA of all of Angelo's patrons in one way or another, and in that respect, without knowing it, the café is the beating heart of their community.
Sadly, Channel 5 announced their intention to cut their comedy budget - effectively cancelling Angelo's before Sharon Horgan and the Bwark team had finished making the show. It's a crying shame, not least because the world of the characters she built over the course of the series was ripe for further exploration.
Horgan said of the series in an interview that "I really loved the people I worked with on Angelo's, there was some great comedy performances there". Viewed now, it is a fascinating document of the early work of many comic actors who have gone on to achieve great success. Miranda Hart of course conquered the studio sitcom with Miranda; whilst Lowe and Farnaby went on to carve highly successful careers in the film business.
Lowe co-wrote and starred in a string of black comedies, such as Sightseers with Steve Oram and made her directorial debut with Prevenge, while Farnaby co-wrote family favourite Paddington 2 with The Mighty Boosh's Paul King, and is of course a sixth of the talented group who were put together as the key cast of CBBC's Horrible Histories and have gone on to mainstream success with BBC One sitcom Ghosts.
Although Sharon Horgan took a supporting role in the much underrated The Increasingly Poor Decisions Of Todd Margaret the following year, her next screenwriting venture wouldn't come until 2012, when she teamed up with Holly Walsh to write Dead Boss, a prison sitcom for BBC Three that in many ways mirrored the ensemble dynamic of Angelo's, albeit in a much harsher environment.
After such a strong start, Horgan has only gone from strength to strength, creating Sarah Jessica Parker vehicle Divorce for HBO and hit Channel 4 sitcom Catastrophe with American comic Rob Delaney - and most recently at the time of writing, being behind the acclaimed Apple TV+ black comedy drama Bad Sisters. With many more projects in the pipeline, her status as one of the best comedy writers of a generation looks set to be undiminished.
Is there anything more definitively British than the 'greasy spoon' experience? Full English breakfasts, mugs of mud coloured tea, chipped formica tables, signed publicity stills of now fading celebrities who may have strayed this way for a little (fried) slice of café life. It's arguably one of Britain's greatest traditions; especially when it's run by foreigners.
Angelo's is a café in the heart of London, a short stroll from the tourist Mecca of Trafalgar Square, the grandeur of Whitehall and the sex shops of sleazy Soho. This unique geographical location means it is also the meeting place for a whole motley crew of diverse, deftly drawn characters from the imagination of writer Sharon Horgan (Pulling, Annually Retentive).
First released: Monday 11th July 2011
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