‘Orrible

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[This is Part 8 of my Shitcoms series. Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart FourPart FivePart SixPart Seven]

To understand the existence of ‘Orrible, we need to recall the weird early-2000’s national obsession with gangland criminals. This was the era of Lock, Stock and Snatch; of cockneys in football manager coats with names like Mad Dog, Tight Foreskin Steve, and Harry the Piss, letting off shooters in lap-dancing clubs, and pushing batteries up guy’s dicks for looking at their birds; and not AAAs, but the rectangular ones you get in smoke alarms. Even Eastenders switched from its genteel storylines about Dr. Legg’s greenfly to a ludicrous gangster phase, recruiting forgotten character actors whose faces had since gone leathery enough to look intimidating when glaring at Phil Mitchell from the back of a car.

00

In the midst of this, Johnny Vaughan was hot off a run on The Big Breakfast, and though his acting work was limited to its dire comedy skits, the BBC greenlit a sitcom, which he would co-write and star as the lead. ‘Orrible‘s setting was that familiar story of the fast-talking chancer forever hustling for that one big score, this time, aiming to move up the ladder of London’s colourful criminal empire. Though he certainly should’ve been sent to death row for crimes against comedy, maybe it helped that Vaughan had the real-life cred of a four-year prison term for coke dealing, two decades earlier. ‘Orrible’s first episode, The Driver, went out on BBC2 on September 10th, 2001. Now, I’m not saying the series is linked to the events of the following day, but having sat through it, nor can I definitively rule it out.

01

To set the scene, Vaughan’s Paul Clarke is an illegal minicab driver, pulling schemes with his best mate, Sean; Ricky Grover, doing his Bulla character, of a big, angry thug. It’s all small-time shit, like torching a mate’s flower stall for £20, until Paul gets the opportunity to move up, by giving a lift to feared gangland boss Mervyn Rees, when his jag breaks down. Mervyn is Welsh, in that hyper-broad sitcom way, calling people “boyo” and obsessed with his prized vintage rugby kit, which immediately signals it’s going to be destroyed. They do that joke of Paul thinking he’s speaking fluent Welsh, but in the subtitles, he’s calling Mervyn’s mum a slag, and the story ends with him being brutalised in Merv’s actual torture dungeon when he accidentally burns the rugby kit. Though it seems like Mervyn Rees is set up to be the big baddie, he’s never mentioned again.

Besides the main lads, there’s a large cast of supporting characters. Paul still lives with his mum, plus his sister and her boyfriend, Lee, who’s the token thicko, but not funny like Father Dougal or Baldrick, just tediously confused by everything. You can tell he’s meant to be a good egg, as, like The Fonz or loveable losers in soaps, he calls Paul’s mum “Mrs. C,” but the weed he’s smoking, always puffing on a big joint, makes him confused – “What you doing, Lee?” “Dunno, I forgot?” For someone who actually got sent down for drugs, Vaughan writes about them like a kid who swears he’s high as fuck off dried banana skins. Most of the action takes place in the pub, where the landlord spends spins tall tales from his years in special forces, played by Willmott-Brown from Eastenders, so don’t get stuck alone with him during a lock-in.

02

‘Orrible is that thing I fear the most when writing about bad television, where there’s no gasping moments of shock; no blackface or Mollie Sugden flashing her gusset; just no-effort dreary shite with an utter lack of creativity that’s hard to fully get across in print. There’s only so many ways you can say something is boring. I can’t quote any jokes, because there aren’t any, and it’s not setup-punchline ‘humour’, but conversational dialogue that’s meant to be amusing, which is like being trapped in a breakroom with the worst people you know; the kind of bores who’d — as Lee does here — say to a happy person “What are you on? I’ll have half!” Its closest cousin is Cannon and Ball’s wretched Plaza Patrol, where you’re similarly stuck listening to the first-draft conversations of dullards. Here’s a sample witticism for you to enjoy, as Sean remarks on Lee’s weed smoking.

What planet are you on today?

Uranus, Sean. Apparently we’re gonna have no trouble with re-entry.

There’s no laugh track, though that doesn’t mean there was no live audience, as they may simply be sat like I am; ashen-faced and silent, and pondering the choices that brought them here and not somewhere better; like dead in a grave. Episode 3, No Sleep ’til Wembley, is that old “gotta get cup final tickets” plot, except they’re promised to various villains who’ll hurt him if he doesn’t deliver. They head to collect a debt of Sean’s, with Paul nervous it might be thugs with baseball bats. Cut to him aggressively threatening some offscreen figure to pay up or get a beating. At this point, I realised ‘Orrible’s lack of imagination could be turned against itself, to make a guessing game out of it. It’s obviously going to be a child or old lady when they cut to who he’s shouting at, right? Close, it’s a little old man. Three points to me! But as Paul celebrates getting the old boy’s tickets, laughing about how it was probably his last cup final, and his grandkids will show up with painted faces, only to be told they’re not going, you just know it’s about to cut to big, scary Sean blubbing like a baby. I’m so confident, I’ve paused it to write this in my notes, and I’m going to look back now…

03

I promise I’m not cheating, it’s just a really bad show. Loads of the time’s taken up with Paul boasting he uses his dole money to “get myself a nice little gram of Charlie, 10 pints of lager, chicken jalfrezi, taxi home, and lovely little brass to round off the night,” and the whole pub doing sums to disprove it. There’s a bunch of tedious ticket mix-ups, culminating in him tearing up Gary the Hitman’s fake tickets which turn out not to be fake, and it seems like the whole cup final story’s an excuse for Vaughan to portray his beloved Chelsea winning the cup (it was Liverpool vs. Arsenal that year). But they do get tickets, and after a cameo from Gary Lineker, we end on a tight close-up of Gary the Hitman telling Paul “You. Are. Dead!” “What’s the matter,” says Paul, got you in Wembley, didn’t I?” What are we guessing? Ball boys? Stewards?

04

Fuck my arse. With episode 6, Two Men and a Bastard, it’s not just punchlines you can guess from one cack-handed visual, but the entire plot. Purely on seeing Sean in a toyshop with tears down his cheeks buying an enormous teddy, it’s obvious he’s just found out he’s got a son, who’ll turn out to be a surly teen they can’t control. This is pretty much spot on, though the mother had banned him from contact until his twelfth birthday. But still, young Ryan does show up in a stolen car, played by James Buckley from The Inbetweeners, and they take him to the pub, where he breaks a bottle over someone’s head, before getting arrested for shoplifting, as Sean weeps with pride.

A good third of the episode’s taken up with a running… I hesitate to say ‘joke’, but let’s say ‘bit’, where they’ve copied the rhythm of a joke from proper sitcoms but forgot to put the funny bit in. There’s a series of engravings — on a bracelet; on a birthday cake — where instead of putting ‘Little R’, Paul’s nickname for baby Ryan, they’ve instead put a lower case r; an actual little r. Do you see?! Do you?! On and on it goes, like ‘Who’s On First Base’ written by someone with the IQ of a plate of cress.

Woss that?”

It’s a little R.”

No, you muppet! I wanted ‘Little R.’”

But this is a little R…”

We suffer multiple scenes of this, suggesting Vaughan was 10 pages short the night before shooting and ended up on a Cake Fails website. Bastard‘s b-plot involves celebrity gangster Billy Marks (played by Preacher‘s Saint of Killers), on home leave from prison, and due to hilarious misunderstandings, convinced his wife’s been sleeping with Paul. As one would if they thought they’d been cucked by Johnny Vaughan; who probably calls it “a cheeky nobbing” and pinches his bell-end with his thumb so it looks like it’s speaking — “lemme in, luv, I’ve got terrible cramp!” — Marks is murderous, hunting for Paul at the zoo before showing up at Little R’s birthday party to confront him.

05

Their meeting is an encapsulation of ‘Orrible‘s tonal uncertainty. Are we supposed to be laughing? Tense? It seems dramatic, because it’s not funny, but then, none of it is. Marks is magically soothed by his child’s drawing of their family, under the sad piano typical of its sparse soundtrack, with incongruous stock music that’s more fitting with an advert for dementia care. There’s time for a parting life lesson, where Marks tells little Ryan, who’s his biggest fan, that crime doesn’t pay. Apropos of nothing, I Googled the actress who played Marks’ wife, and the 4th result was a Youtube link titled ‘Deep cleavage of Kim Thomson from Emmerdale‘. I didn’t click on it, but I daresay the video-edits of Tommy Tit-Hang have more artistic merit than what I did watch next.

Episode seven takes the worst of ‘Orrible‘s pretensions above its subterranean ability, of fusing comedy with a dramatic storyline, and stretches it over 55 minutes. I clocked the length and assumed they’d mashed the last two episodes together, in the burning-off of a failed show, but to my horror, a title card announces this as ‘DIRTY DOZEN (Feature Length Version)’. I can’t decide what’s funner; the notion that this sweeping, epic tale couldn’t be told in a normal episode, and needed (almost) an hour, or that they couldn’t write another five minutes of material to hit the full sixty. This is practically ‘Orrible: The Movie, with the feel of an idea Vaughan had for a film once, which got reused for the series.

06

We open on a dream sequence of two dollybirds with a briefcase of money beckoning to Paul, but he can’t get to them as he’s chained to a giant rock which, to win me another 3 points, morphs into Sean, who’s quite literally holding him back. Here begins a level of your protagonist getting shit on by life not seen since part one of The Office Christmas special, shaken awake by his mum who tells him to “pay up, or get out!” Pretty soon, this trope of sneering at adults so broke they’re forced to live at home is going to seem like a quaint portrait of times gone past.

Paul’s mum berates him for his wasted life, as Sean bursts in to announce they’ve finally that big score. The local nightclub’s doing a relaunch, and they’re in for… security team? Managing the strippers? Not quite — “twelve urinals,” the dirty dozen of the title. Paul makes it very clear he’s not interested, so obviously we cut to him driving a urinal-crammed car, as Sean does the maths; “this baby alone has swallowed a million pints of urine!” They get ripped off at the scrapyard, so dump them in the canal, where a dogwalker spots the splashing and takes down the licence plate. Back at the pub, Paul’s childhood frenemy Reuben is back in town, throwing his money around, with a girl on each arm. Paul, on the other hand, was spotted in his piss-mobile by a mate who happened to be buying a hooky Polaroid camera, before he’s publicly barred for not paying his tab, piling on the misery.

07

Black and white flashbacks show the lads riding bikes as kids, with Reuben and Sean leaving Paul lagging behind on stabilisers even though they’re about ten. With Sean palling up with Reuben, Paul enlists Lee to fish the urinals out of the canal, when a museum offers $100 per pisser, but the camera pans down to a dead body floating nearby. Oh, to be face-down and bloated in a stagnant canal, rather than watching ‘Orrible‘s elderly scrapyard owner describe the time “a total stranger shoved a dildo right up me” and doing a protracted mime. Sean and Reuben are now super-tight, but Paul’s moved on, getting a hug from his mum, proud her boy’s finally on the straight and narrow. “You ain’t never gonna see me in trouble again,” he says, as the cops burst into the kitchen and arrest him for murder, giving him a biff up the stomach for absolutely no reason.

Vaughan’s Big Breakfast colleague Jasmine Lowson reports he’ll likely get 20 years, so this is a prison show now? Nope. Straight to a ‘ONE WEEK LATER‘ title card where he’s out, and goes home to his apathetic family, where the copper who beat him up is there in a dressing gown, now moved in and banging Paul’s mum — “We’re family now.” His urinal money’s stolen by the bent cops for a poker game, where he’s threatened to make sandwiches or be sent back inside, and his room’s been taken by Lee’s mum, drunkenly passed out in her bra. So which is it? Is this a cartoonish Mrs Brown’s Boys, where the copper stinks out the bathroom with his dumps, or the dramatic story of a man on the edge? It doesn’t help that Vaughan’s too atrocious an actor to portray the existential crisis he’s shooting for.

08

Sean’s now working for Reuben (weirdly morphing into an 80’s yuppie with a stick-on ponytail), in a luxury flat with sex-trafficked Eastern European prostitutes, who offer Paul a blowie. Reuben sets Sean up with a car full of coke, putting him in jail, as Paul whines to Wilmott-Brown Paul that he’s lost everything thanks to whoever dumped that body. Walking home that night, he’s knocked out with a karate chop, and awakes tied up in a field, where the masked hitman apologises for wrecking his life, offering the choice of fixing it, or taking £30k to start over.

Magically, his life mends itself at karaoke night. Lee’s mum moves out, the copper’s given the boot, and Sean’s out of jail as Reuben turned himself in. With a wink, Willmott-Brown reveals himself to be the hitman, and Paul gets up to sing sad solo karaoke, missing his duet buddy, Sean. Of course, he suddenly turns up to join him onstage in belting out that song from Officer and a Gentlemen, carrying Paul aloft in his arms like a lady. Okay, I’ll be honest, I don’t know if that happens, because I’ve paused it when Sean comes through the door, but I’m willing to bet my entire life savings (about 20p) that that’s exactly how it pans out. I swear, if I’m wrong and they pleasantly surprise me, I’ll leave all this in and apologise to Johnny Vaughan. Ready?

09

Fuck’s sake, Vaughan. And this all plays over a vaseline-soaked montage of bromance moments from the past… 6 episodes. On every level, ‘Orrible is a colossal failure, but none more so than on the very foundation of comedy, which is surprise. If you can guess a punchline, you won’t be laughing. The only legitimate smiles to be had were at Johnny Vaughan’s ludicrous Hitler-esque hairpiece, and the moment I was pushed into a full psychotic break, and began daydreaming of a crossover with Up the Elephant and Round the Castle.

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as $1 a month, then click here to help provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, and all kinds of other stuff.

There’s a ton of content, including exclusives that’ll never appear here on the free blog, such as 1970’s British variety-set horror novella, Jangle, and my latest novel, Men of the Loch. Please give my existing books a look too, or if you’re so inclined, sling me a Ko-fi.

~ by Stuart on October 14, 2019.

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