It was the heady summer of 2003, the sun shone brightly, “X-Men 2” and “Johnny English” were packing them in at the multiplexes, the cool kids were getting down to the hot sounds of The Darkness and The Coral’s second album: it was truly a remarkable time to be alive. Despite such wonders as The Thrills and Stellastar* hitting my ear drums the most enduringly brilliant cultural artefact I encountered was a book called “TVGoHome” by a man called Charlie Brooker. An older colleague introduced it to me as the “greatest book ever written”, whilst I’ve not read enough Tolstoy, Proust or Joyce to really rank it I would certainly place it amongst the funniest I’ve ever read.
The book is, in the main, a compendium of lovingly crafted parodies of TV listings originally anonymously published online (the original site is still online but has not been updated since 2003 ), though there are also a few other spoof publications thrown in: Heat, Dazed and Confused and – of course – The Daily Mail all get skewed. The programs Brooker and his occasional co-writers (including Chris Morris) created were variously: ludicrous, crude, sometimes borderline plausible and nearly all hilarious.
Since the days of “TVGoHome” Charlie B has gone from being a minor cult figure to a kind of guru figure. His columns in the Guardian have taken aim at Big Brother contestants and world leaders alike , dissecting all comers with the same rage. As the years have passed Brooker’s rage has become more forced and less believable, something he himself admits, he’s not as angry as he was a few years back. Who can blame him? It’s a lot harder to be sent into blinding fits of rage by reality TV when you’ve fathered a child with Konnie Huq. His BBC series’ Screenwipe and Newswipe were both generally interesting but often seemed stuck in an irresolvable tension between being funny and making IMPORTANT POINTS about society and… stuff. The balance of the “TVGoHome” had been fatally tipped: the silliness outweighed by seriousness. At his worst Brooker is sort of a liberal Richard Littlejohn, massaging the prejudices of his readers with a snappy turn of phrase. Though, to be fair, that’s the primary role of any newspaper columnist whether left or rightwing.
It was then, a refreshing surprise to see his Sky cop spoof “A Touch of Cloth” drop the IMPORTANT POINTS and return Brooker to the gleeful silliness that made “TVGoHome” so great. With John Hannah and Suranne Jones brilliantly sending up the kind of parts they play in ITV crime drams, “A Touch of Cloth” could indeed have been ripped from the (web)pages of “TVGH” , its sending up of every hackneyed British TV police program ever had the name mixture of acute observation and daftness. What it lacked in razor sharp satire and sociological insight it more than made up for in simple hilarity. Where Brooker’s earlier forays into narrative (“Nathan Barley”, “Dead Set”, “Black Mirror”) left people discussing what exactly he was “saying about society” was more likely to make them pause to find hidden gags.
The sheer amount of gags – not all of them winners admittedly – packed into the two episodes was the nearest a British comedy has come to nearing the gag-density of American shows such as “Community” and “Arrested Development”. The highest compliment you can pay “A Touch of Cloth” is that, despite treading some of the same territory of Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker‘s “Police Squad” / “Naked Gun” TV / film series it was not overshadowed by them. Whether John Hannah’s DI Jack Cloth is a worthy successor to Leslie Nielsen’s Sergeant Frank Drebin, Detective Lieutenant Police Squad remains to be seen: Brooker has touched cloth, now – with more episodes in the pipeline – he must follow through if he wants to recapture the magic of “TVGoHome”.