British Comedy Guide

Woody Allen

Jewish humour ain't what it used to be

The UK Jewish Comedy festival's salute to the Borscht Belt comedy of Woody Allen and Joan Rivers is poised awkwardly between tribute and parody.

Brian Logan, The Guardian, 5th December 2016

Radio Times review

Watching this comedy is like being trapped in a Woody Allen fantasy: it's hard to believe a beautiful, young, free-spirited American would ever be interested in a portly, persnickety Englishman who is loath to leave Watford. If you can swallow that, it's a class act (the 60s set is worthy of a costume drama).

In this episode, our hapless hero has his first taste of marijuana shortly before a deliciously disastrous job interview. OK, so it's not the most original of scenes but Nick Frost is even funnier playing a pothead.

Claire Webb, Radio Times, 6th June 2014

Ophelia Lovibond on playing Robin in Mr Sloane

It is easy to see why she has already been likened to Woody Allen's original muse Diane Keaton. Apart from their shared striking looks, her comic timing is impeccable.

Victoria-Anna Bull, The Independent, 29th May 2014

Robert B Weide interview

The creator of Sky Atlantic's Mr Sloane was best known for his work with Larry David and Simon Pegg. Then he found himself at the centre of the Woody Allen storm...

Archie Bland, The Independent, 17th May 2014

Last year's first series of Last Tango was both a surprise hit and proof that the BBC wasn't entirely comprised of sneering ageists. The familial drama - centred around a pair of septuagenarian lovebirds - has reportedly even been snapped up by Diane Keaton with a view to an American remake.

We've got two pieces of advice for Diane, should she be reading. Firstly, don't try and cast Woody Allen to play opposite you, cute though it may sound on paper. Secondly, if you reach a second series, don't start it on quite such a sombre note as this new run begins on. Whereas the first series began with the joys of new-found love (and the lols of seeing oldies on Facebook), we reconvene tonight after Alan's (Derek Jacobi) heart attack.

If that wasn't enough of a bummer, the delicate romantic entanglements of the pair's respective offspring make for a slightly confusing 15 minutes. Yet, despite the absence of any initial sugar-coating, Last Tango thankfully remains as charming and well played as ever.

Oliver Keens, Time Out, 19th November 2013

The Conversation: Last Tango in Halifax star Annie Reid

On getting naked with Daniel Craig and writing letters to Woody Allen.

Oscar Quine, The Independent, 9th November 2013

It's become clear that Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant are never going to make anything like The Office ever again. And, as they've said themselves, why should they: having created sitcom genius and revolutionised the genre, they are hardly likely to top it.

It's become clear that Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant are never going to make anything like The Office ever again. And, as they've said themselves, why should they: having created sitcom genius and revolutionised the genre, they are hardly likely to top it. What they did for an encore was Extras, which mocked their entry into the showbiz elite, yet celebrated it by bringing in all their new pals to amusingly send up their public images. They foisted the tedious witterings of their non-famous pal Karl Pilkington upon us, until he was in showbiz too. And Ricky made some disappointing movies and popped up in all his American showbiz mates' TV shows and on his pal Jonathan Ross' chat show and annoyed everyone by being offensive on Twitter (but maybe it was just him pretending to be offensive, except that still involved offending people, but they weren't his friends so they didn't really count). And meanwhile Stephen, er, did some "ironic" bank adverts.

OK, they did make the film Cemetery Junction, which wasn't about fame at all, but not many people saw that. Instead, Gervais in particular has seemed to relish spending his time in the public eye portraying a smug, annoying celebrity character to the point where the last line of Animal Farm seems to apply - looking "from pig to man and from man to pig ... but already it was impossible to say which was which".

So it is, ahem, small wonder that the pair's latest venture returns to that well, starring their showbiz chum and Extras guest star Warwick Davis, in a faux-documentary sitcom about a dwarf actor who runs an agency for other short actors (as Davis actually does) but who can't get any work for himself, even when he begs Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant to write him something. Confused? Yes, that's the point: life's too short revels in the boundaries between the real and the not-real, with most of the characters using their actual names, while playing themselves as venial twits.

The similarities to Extras can barely be overstated. While Davis has the starring role - and it was apparently his idea - the dialogue makes him actually sound like Ricky Gervais: you can hear those Brentian speech rhythms leaking out. It's oddly reminiscent of the recent films of Woody Allen, where he drafts in various young actors to play the "Woody" character and they all end up imitating those familiar nervous tics. Here, it's difficult not to hear Gervais's voice behind Davis's lines, such as: "I'm a bit like Martin Luther King, because I too have a dream that one day dwarves will be treated equally ... you say, oh no, it's not the same ... but I've never seen a black man fired from a cannon. Every day for a whole season and twice on Saturdays."

It's not the fault of Warwick Davis, who's absolutely fine in the role of a hapless fictional version of himself and clearly well up for any resulting confusion it may cause. But there's just so much of Gervais and Merchant, both in the references and on screen, that he's in danger of being squeezed out of what's meant to be his own show.

The show shares Extras' fascination with celebrity cameos and when Liam Neeson pops up to consult Gervais and Merchant, playing "themselves", on his stand-up comedy plans, Davis is relegated to the background while they milk the scene, surrounded by posters reminding us of all their previous work. Like Extras' Andy Millman, Davis' character has a useless hanger-on: instead of an agent, it's his accountant (Steve Brody, who was David Brent's useless agent in The Office Christmas Special). Even Barry Off Of EastEnders turns up, still playing the same loser.

Well, plenty of people loved Extras, of course, but given that it was a self-referential take on Gervais's own rise to fame, isn't making a meta-parody of it just a post-modern gag too far? But worse than that, the joke isn't all that funny anymore. There are a couple of laughs here, for sure (mostly from Neeson's bit), but the whole thing just seems like an indulgent, back-slapping waste of talent.

The Scotsman, 9th November 2011

Is Ricky Gervais the new Woody Allen or a witless bore?

Ricky Gervais is in danger of turning into a bad parody of his greatest creation.

Matthew Norman, The Telegraph, 21st October 2011

There weren't many duff notes in Friends, the slick NBC sitcom that ran and ran from 1994 to 2004 and, for those of us with homes full of teenagers, is still running and running. But one of its duffest notes was the casting of Helen Baxendale to play Ross's British wife, Emily. Nothing against Baxendale, but amid all that sassy American humour, she seemed as flaccidly English as a stale Rich Tea biscuit surrounded by freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies.

In fairness, that was kind of the point; we weren't meant to warm to Emily. And Baxendale, deliberately, didn't get many killer lines. But it wasn't just that; whip-smart, wisecracking American humour just doesn't sound right emerging from a British mouth. For the same reason, Daphne Moon (Jane Leeves) was my least favourite character in the otherwise sublime Frasier. It's not that British actors aren't capable of wonderful TV comedy, just that the dialogue in the best US sitcoms is rooted in New York-Jewish traditions of razor-sharp put-downs and one-liners. Think Woody Allen and Neil Simon. On British television, comic dialogue has a different rhythm.

Anyway, all of this brings me to Episodes, in which Matt LeBlanc (dim, amiable Joey in Friends) plays a heightened version of himself in the latest example of what is rapidly becoming a TV genre all of its own: celebrities indulging in a game of double-bluff with us, playing themselves as slightly more neurotic and prima donna-ish than they actually are, which of course suggests that they're not neurotic prima donnas at all. Steve Coogan did this beautifully in The Trip recently, as did Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm. In Episodes, it is LeBlanc's turn. He plays Matt LeBlanc, hugely rich and successful thanks to Friends, who to the horror of married British comedy writers Beverly and Sean (Tamsin Greig and Stephen Mangan) is cast as the lead in the US version of their hit UK show. They wanted their British lead, a fruity RSC type called Julian (Richard Griffiths). But they get LeBlanc.

So far, so good. It's a great idea, with great opening credits: a script flying from London to LA. And there are certainly precedents for television successfully turning a mirror on itself; The Larry Sanders Show of blessed memory did it exquisitely. Moreover, there's something painfully real about British comedy writers being lured to LA by the sweet blandishments of network bosses and the promise of a Spanish-style hacienda in Beverly Hills, only for the semi-detached back in Chiswick to seem even more alluring once the dream starts to sour. You should hear the British writing duo Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, who did the whole hacienda thing, on the subject. Yet I find myself unable to give a fat thumbs-up after the opening Episodes, and the problem lies with Greig and Mangan, or at least with their script. In a British context, they're both terrific comic performers. Greig was pitch-perfect as the hapless heroine in David Renwick's wonderful Love Soup. But here, trading waspish one-liners in the land of Jack Benny and George Burns, they seemed out of place. And although that's the whole point - that they are out of place - they should at least be talking like Brits, not Americans.

Still, it's early days. I have a feeling that Episodes will get better the more LeBlanc gets involved. And there have already been some lovely gags, like the friskiness that gripped Beverly and Sean when they saw that the vast bath in their rented Beverly Hills home could easily accommodate both of them, only for it to wear off while they waited for the damn thing to fill.

Brian Viner, The Independent, 11th January 2011

We're almost at the end of this unique comedy creation, which serves up English countryside to the tune of top level bickering from Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon over a series of very expensive lunches.

Part of the fun is working out how much of their not very polite and utterly random dinner party conversations have been thought out in advance, and how much is just flowing off the top of their heads as the food gets shovelled in.

Tonight, in the Nidderdale Valley, they're riffing on an Abba song, the comparative merits of Les Dawson and Woody Allen, and they learn more about limestone than they could possibly ever want to. Yes, it's all very moreish.

Jane Simon, The Mirror, 29th November 2010

All Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan do in this series is tease each other over expensive lunches, bicker a bit and do silly voices. How hard can that be? But after a while you realise there's more to this banter than meets the eye. It's impossible to tell how much is improvised and how much scripted, but when they go off on one of their comic riffs, it hardly matters. Tonight's subjects under discussion include Abba song The Winner Takes It All, film roles they didn't get (or were cut out of) and Woody Allen versus Les Dawson.

David Butcher, Radio Times, 29th November 2010

There is no justice in the world, clearly. Otherwise, why would the dreadful sitcom How Not to Live Your Life be allowed to survive into its third series? More to the point why does its charmless star/writer/producer, Dan Clark, have almost total creative control, like he's Woody Allen or something?

He plays a feckless, gaffe-prone berk who constantly finds himself in sticky predicaments, usually in an effort to impress his attractive female housemate. This premise could probably provoke a few laughs in the hands of a more talented comedian, but Clark is terminally uninspired. The latest episode even featured a cameo from Noel Fielding, just to seal the comedy vacuum.

Lazy and obvious, the only fun it provides is in seeing how often you can predict each punchline.

Paul Whitelaw, The Scotsman, 9th November 2010

It was a curate's egg of a half-hour, not that a curate and his egg offer the best metaphor for a show about a loving but bickering family of east London Jews. In fact, it is a singularly ill-fitting metaphor, the expression "curate's egg" originating in the old Punch cartoon about a curate who was too timid to complain about a bad egg he had been served. There would be no such timidity at any table of Jews worth their salt beef. Even a visiting rabbi would spit out such an egg.

Enough eggs already. Grandma's House revolves around the simple idea, one that dates back almost to the birth of television comedy, of different generations of the same family arguing in a front room. Steptoe and Son did it to great effect, so did Til Death Us Do Part, so did The Royle Family. In some ways, Grandma's House is The Royle Family with chopped liver. In other ways, it is Seinfeld removed to Gants Hill. And the nod to Seinfeld is evident in the character of Simon (Simon Amstell), the presenter of a TV comedy panel show about music, which - just as Jerry Seinfeld played a stand-up comedian called Jerry, a mildly fictionalised version of himself - is precisely what Amstell, the co-writer of Grandma's House with Dan Swimer and erstwhile presenter of Never Mind the Buzzcocks, is in real life. Or was. Indeed, in last night's opening episode Simon announced to his family his intention to quit his TV show, much to their dismay. "In my kalooki group that's all we talk about," lamented his grandma (Linda Bassett).

The other obvious parallel with Seinfeld is that Jerry Seinfeld made it through nine seasons of that phenomenally successful show rarely ever being more than engagingly wooden as an actor. Good acting was the preserve of his brilliant co-stars and so it is here. Amstell barely seems to try to act, just issues his lines semi-mechanically wearing a half-smile, just as Jerry did.

Still, it didn't matter in Seinfeld and, strangely, it doesn't matter here either. Amstell, aided by the sensible decision not to run a laughter-track, somehow makes a virtue of his self-consciousness, and in any case, there are enough pitch-perfect performances, notably from Rebecca Front playing Simon's divorced mother, Tanya, and Samantha Spiro as his aunt, Liz. It helps that the writing, too, is often pitch-perfect. Tanya is being courted by Clive (James Smith), whom Simon loathes, but who is considered highly eligible largely on account of a 42-inch plasma TV on which "you can see every hair of Noel Edmonds's beard". And when Simon's grandpa (Geoffrey Hutchings) breaks the news that he has cancer (an unwittingly poignant detail, given that Hutchings died suddenly last month), it is questioned on the basis that "years ago he found a lump on his testicle and it was a raisin in his pants".

Just as a wandering raisin can be mistaken for a testicular lump, so can a promising first episode be mistaken for a good new sitcom, and I wouldn't like to commit myself too soon. Besides, there are reasons why London-Jewish humour is far less familiar to us than the kind of New York-Jewish humour exemplified by Neil Simon, Woody Allen, Seinfeld and Larry David (whose Curb Your Enthusiasm also has loud echoes in Grandma's House). It is no accident that the Jewish humour British audiences know best and love most has historically been imported, mordant and razor-sharp, from the United States. Nor is it any accident that Jewish characters in British sitcoms are, for the most part, pretty forgettable. It is more than 40 years since Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width, and not even the warm glow of nostalgia does it any favours.

Brian Viner, The Independent, 10th August 2010

In Pete Versus Life, the winner is Woody Allen

Channel 4's new sportswriter sitcom is decent enough. But its central joke has been done before - and better.

Martin Kelner, The Guardian, 6th August 2010