A Prince Among Men

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[This is Part 9 of my Shitcoms series. Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart FourPart FivePart SixPart SevenPart Eight]

The latest Shitcom to fall under my gaze has a lot in common with the previous entry, Captain Butler. It too hails from the 1990s as a star vehicle for a Red Dwarf actor, and just like Butler, is an absolute clogged toilet of a show. Like Faith in the Future, Not On Your Nellie, Life of Riley, and Nelson’s Column, A Prince Among Men follows that classic sitcom title convention of picking an idiom and naming the lead character after it; in ex-footballer, Gary Prince. Although a more fitting title would’ve been The Shitass Empire. Speaking of Britass, Prince Among Men was co-created by a pair who’d penned four episodes of Chris Barrie’s swimming centre disaster-farce, and written for Birds of a Feather; plus one them played Jacko’s mate on Brush Strokes, so imagine an episode of Comedy Connections where it’s just a close-up of me scratching all the skin off my face.

01

The opening titles show clips from the series, but jazzed up to look exciting with that weird stabiliser effect you get when someone’s filming their dad fall down the stairs on a phone. As the show-proper will when it starts telling jokes, the theme has me tossing batteries at the screen and setting fire to the curtains, as it kicks in with hooligan-style chanting — “he’s a winner, he’s a star; he’s a prince, a prince among men!” Fahkin’ come on then, you slags! I’ll stripe ya! But then a gravelly-voiced Chris Rea type takes over, with lyrics that read like a five-year-old smeared in cake icing explaining all about their favourite superhero.

he’s always right, cos he knows what’s what,

winnin’ is his game, he’s always said,

cos the best is the Prince, and he’s got the lot,

and he hasn’t let it go to his head!

He goes onto tell us Gary’s “an all-time great, the finest football player of the day” and “patted on the back by the hand of fate, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.” What do you care, mate? This interminable song carries on into the opening scene, which showcases Prince Among Men‘s comedic one-two punch; technology going wrong and Chris Barrie pulling a face, while also demonstrating how the audience; clearly packed with rabid Red Dwarf fans; will laugh their throats bloody at anything he does. Gary’s a big tech guy, and gets a laugh purely by using a remote control to close his patio doors. The first comedian to go back in time with an Amstrad em@iler is gonna sell out stadiums.

02

Throughout the series, the live crowd are popping off like loose firecrackers, ready to fall out of their seats whenever Barrie opens his mouth, like someone overreacting to the lunch room quips of a colleague they fancy. In one episode, just the name Sophie Moffett, not even meant to be a joke, gets a lone “hurh!” of amusement, likely from someone who entered the studio doing the Red Dwarf shuffle. To be fair, he is using his Lister voice from the Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers audiobook, as Gary Prince is a proper comedy Scouser, complete with that perm all footballers had in [checks notes] 1998. In a testament to great research, Scouse Gary is seen casually reading The Sun.

Chris Barrie’s a gifted performer, but he’s truly dreadful in this, with a zero effort performance, like he’s confused the actual shoot for the first table read. There’s a shocking lack of preparedness, everything played flat and bare minimum, with no extra little moments of physicality or added comic garnishes on the lines he’s merely remembered and is reciting, other than sometimes pulling a face. It feels like that stage show which re-enacts the whole of the movie Point Break, where a random audience member’s pulled on to play Keanu’s part with no warning.

03

Despite the football setting, any actual footie-talk is so generic, the writers had all the interest of your mum glancing up from her sudoku on cup final day to ask why the goalie doesn’t just pick it up and run down the other end. This is a workplace sitcom in disguise, with Gary’s ’empire’ of assorted businesses running out of an office complex at the end of his garden. His secretary Sonia is one of those naïve comedy thickos with a baby voice, always squeaking on about unseen fiancée, Kevin, who’s got eczema and erupting dermatitis, giving Barrie the chance to make grossed-out facial expressions when hearing about his flaky skin, just like you loved when he did it with Colin in The Brittas Empire, didn’t you? DIDN’T YOU?! Also working for him are Susie Blake, Minty off Eastenders, and posho accountant Mr. Fitzherbert, who makes frequent reference to boarding school chums called things like Pongo and Shagger.

Right from the whistle, it’s clear we’re following the rote construction of all sitcoms from that era, as used so ineffectively by Big Top a decade later, where, rather than having a funny scene play out in front of camera, two characters sit down and talk about what happened, so we can imagine it instead. At a supermarket opening, Minty will mention a “routine with a salami” that went down well with the housewives; “of course, you always get one that faints.” Yes, great idea, keep the interesting incidents offscreen, and have the sitcom be all the boring stuff. The series begins with Gary reminiscing about taking blind kids skydiving, as though that’s an inherently funny idea and not, like, a thing there are actual charities for. Anyway, one of them got caught in a wind sock; but you can’t see it. Neither could the kid!

We’re 1,000 words in, and I’ve yet to mention the plot. That’s because they don’t settle on one until five minutes from the end, so it’s all just random shit. A dog gets fatally hung (later revealed to be fine) by an automatic garage door; Gary goes to the pub he bought for the manager of his old schoolboy team; and there are loads of jokes about his high-tech gadgets. The universal remote’s obviously intended to be their ‘Arkwright’s Till’, with doors opening suddenly and violently, and a wine dispenser tipping a bottle of red all over the floor as the audience hoot. There’s a bit where he goes to use his mobile and accidentally dials on the remote instead, cutting to all the shutters and blinds going at Benny Hill speed.

04

Gary’s wife is a German with a Herr Flick accent, switching all her Vs for Ws (“wegitarian food”), and he overhears her on the phone, erroneously thinking he’s getting the This is Your Life book during his speech at the policeman’s luncheon. Turns out, he’s wrong, though we do get a look at Gary’s patter. “I’ve always tried to do me bit for the boys in blue, but to be honest, I’d rather do it for the girls in blue! Ooh ooh!” At this, he salaciously thrusts his fist at 90 degrees, in the time-accepted mime for a big stiff willy going up a fanny. This is fully on a par with the rest of the jokes. Regard, this example of Prince‘s laff-getters.

     Fitzherbert: “I’m sorry if it offends you that I’ve got a pedigree.

     Gary: “I’ve got a pedigree, chum.

Ha, ha, just like the dog food! Then there’s this sparkling witticism, when Gary recalls a chat with his physio — “he says he’s never seen a knee like mine, he says another bloke would be hospitalised with my knee. Well, obviously not with my knee; he’d have his own, it’d be his knee…” Among all the talk of Gary’s side businesses, we learn there’s a tool designers; all to get to a line where Fitzherbert zings him by changing the company name to Gary Prince’s Toolworks — nothing more humiliating than having people know your penis can get hard and shoot cum out of its slit.

05

But this is a rare case of the show understanding what a double-entendre is, incapable of pulling off (see, that’s how easy it is!) even the hoariest of comedy techniques. When Fitzherbert takes a phonecall with a woman, he suggests “why don’t we play around on Friday afternoon. I seem to remember you thrashed me last time,” Gary opens his gob in shock, eyebrows on the ceiling. But anyone — i.e. the whole audience — who’s laughing as though he isn’t clearly describing tennis or golf, but rather, a bout of violent S&M, must be sat in a fucking gimp mask and bollock-collar to make that connection. There’s another one in episode 3, where he tells Gary his wife’s mad because he “shot Nanny. She was old and passed it, and smelled dreadful, so I took her into the garden and shot her.” Maybe this would’ve been funny if he’d revealed he actually was talking about an old lady and not, as is patently obvious, a dog.

We’re supposed to be charmed by Gary’s cheeky Scouse jack-the-laddery, like in his banter with Susie Blake’s Bev, who tells him she prefers to be addressed as Beverly — “Well dat’s very ‘andy, Bev, cos dat’s your name!” Every line’s delivered with that “Accrington Stanley!?” cadence, and pushed from the side of his mouth, sometimes ending on a jaunty pose, like a medieval jester. For such a pedestrian show, the end credits are oddly allegorical, set against an ethereal cloudy sky with a tiny Gary ascending a ladder which stretches up the side of the screen, slowly sinking with each step, with him reaching the top just as it ends. Ah, yes; in that eternal and endless struggle for success, man’s true enemy is himself; a philosophy imparted through A Prince Among Men‘s tableaux of Chris Barrie flaring his nostrils as the patio doors refuse to open.

06

Episode two follows the 1997 naming rule of making a pun on Changing Rooms, entitled ‘Changing Revs‘, and starts with the Princes trying to make breakfast with Gary’s new voice-activated microwave from Japan, giving us the hilarity of his wife shouting in her German accent like an SS officer. Later, she’ll yell at it in Japanese, causing the blinds to come down instead. It’s all laid on the same rails as episode one, with Gary doing the rounds of the supporting characters as they all do their bits; Sonia chatters about ugly, gross Kevin; Fitzherbert says some comical stocks-n-shares words, and namechecks a Johnny Nipple and Buttocks Bingham; and there’s a reference to an offscreen “papier mache incident.” Plot-wise, the church due to hold Sonia and Kevin’s wedding is being sold, so Gary decides he’ll buy it. As the warden tells him about dwindling attendance, Gary suggests they do a “transfer to the Catholics,” and then he pulls this face.

07

There’s a brilliant example here of the way bad writers desperately scrabble around to find a joke — any joke — so they can pack up for the day, remembering how they once read that humour is born from confusion. Why, asks Gary, were there so many boxes of macaroons in the church? “Cameroons!” exclaims the warden, “they’re going to the Cameroons! We’re storing them for a charity.” “Oh, right.” That’s it. That’s a joke. And tellingly, it’s the first to barely raise a titter from the audience. The warden tells Gary the church is God’s house. “And does he know you’re selling it?” asks Gary. And then he pulls this face.

08

Back at the office, a woman’s arrived from charity Tropic Aid — “I’m a Lucozade man meself!” says Gary, and yes, a face was made, but like everything else in this show, I’ll let you imagine it. However, Gary’s not buying the church to save Sonia’s wedding, and secretly plans to turn it into a go kart track called ‘God’s Hot Rods’ or ‘Onward Christian Go-Karts’ (the latter of which scores our first zero-laughs gag). Eventually, the church finds out, cancels the sale, and sends the go karts to Africa, mistaking them for a charitable donation (“so now the nomads can drive 15 miles to the nearest well”), but until then, Bev hates the idea of the church falling into secular hands.

     Sonia: “It can be a bit messy. Kevin’s got those, you know.” [oh Christ, don’t]

     Bev: “What?” [please…]

     Sonia: “Secular hands. He has to have them dressed twice a week by the health visitor.” [my office lays empty. The window beside the desk is wide open, curtain billowing, scattering loose papers about the room. In the street below, there is silence for a moment. And then, a scream]

It turns out Gary accidentally grassed himself up to the church on an answerphone tape, and there’s no mole, so t– “Kevin has moles, have you tried potassium manganate?” Sorry, I just blacked out for a second. Gary: “I mean in me organisation!” Sonia: “Kevin’s are in his armpits.” Look, let’s just MOVE ON. Episode 3, Where Were They Then? sees Gary’s old schoolboy team being reunited for an interview in the Independent. This week’s tech-yuks come from a little table that descends from the ceiling but keeps going out of reach, in a gag the show returns to about ten fucking times. Meanwhile, Gary’s wife is launching a range of cakes, and when told they’ll be puff pastry, Sonia lets out a big “Oh dear… Kevin won’t go near puff pasty, just in case.” Is this… a homophobic gag? Puffs? Fear of catching AIDS? What else could it be a reference to?

09

Gary and his schoolboy manager discuss old teammates, including John the Murderer, who went onto kill both his parents in a mercy killing — sorry, “a Mersey killing. He pushed them both in the Mersey.” Christ, a man should be so lucky. Later, while wearing a huge 90’s smock-jacket like Pipes from Ghostwatch, he’s caught shit-talking John the Murderer, when he turns out to be Right Behind Him, covering himself with a brown-nosing “you were probably driven to it; you were pushed!” “No,” says John the Murderer, “I wasn’t pushed. But they were!” I cannot reiterate enough, I’d bloody love to have been murdered rather than sit through this. Nice head-stoving or charger cable round the neck; the edges of my vision going grey as Sonia talks about Kevin’s anal-fissure, and knowing, even if I’m due for the plague pits of Hell, things are looking up.

10

At the team meet, old goalkeeper Derek’s now Deborah after a sex change — who craggy manager Vince immediately becomes besotted with — and there’s more offscreen antics when Bev berates Sonia for ruining her night at a posh society do, having had to resuscitate Kevin in a muddy lake after one of his ‘attacks’. “Yes, he chucked a banger at the orchestra and they attacked him!” The cartoonish nature of these anecdotes is tonally way off with the dreary stuff we do see, describing Kevin with his head stuck in a tuba, and a piccolo jammed up his arse.

When the newspaper comes in, it turns out to a piece about Gary’s wife. “I guess zat’s the vay the cookie crumbles!” she says, which gets a huge laugh, presumably because she’s quoting Prince Edward’s brilliant and timeless quip from It’s a Royal Knockout, and we end on the ceiling-table shattering over Gary’s head, leaving him grimacing and rubbing his perm. Inexplicably, A Prince Among Men wasn’t cancelled the moment its opening titles had finished, but renewed for a second series. This would be relegated to the Sunday afternoon death slot, along with other shows that felt like punishment, and which existed solely as Gabriel’s trumpet-blast, announcing the imminent, dread approach of school or work. And what a way to see off the final dregs of the weekend, by watching Chris Barrie make a face as he hears about the infected penile scabs of an unseen man.

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, early access to my podcast, and all kinds of other stuff.

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~ by Stuart on June 26, 2020.

2 Responses to “A Prince Among Men”

  1. […] [This is Part 10 of my Shitcoms series. Part One — Part Two — Part Three — Part Four — Part Five — Part Six — Part Seven — Part Eight — Part Nine] […]

  2. […] Part Two — Part Three — Part Four — Part Five — Part Six — Part Seven — Part Eight — Part Nine — Part […]

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