This is exactly the kind of writing that should find its way on to TV screens more often. The Book Group was a Channel 4 comedy that aired for two series in 2002 and 2003. Channel 4 used to be the happy home for new and exciting British comedy, before their twin obsessions of Big Brother and body dismorphia took precedence, and The Book Group is a great and late example of this. It is rare in that it manages to avoid being stereotypical, even when dealing with apparent stereotypes.
There are gay relationships, scenes of drug abuse, disability, eating disorders and footballers wives, but this is no exercise in ‘box ticking’, every character and relationship rings true. There are Americans, English, Scandinavian, Dutch and Scots interacting naturally; just like in a modern Western city. Who knew? Certainly not people whose only vision of Glasgow has been informed by film and TV, where the prevailing image is still mainly that of ‘No Mean City’. The most recent example of this is Peter Mullan’s NEDS, a review of which will appear on these pages shortly. NEDS is a great film, and the Glasgow it portrays is one which I recognise, if only from the distance of my youth, but it is important for those who make film and TV, and their audiences, to realise there’s more to the city than gang violence, sectarianism and murrderrrr.
The casting of The Book Group is perfect. American actress Anne Dudek, who has recently been in medical drama House, plays Clare; an uptight would be writer who is horrified to see the disparate characters who answer her advert for a book group. These include the aforementioned footballers wives (Bonnie Engstrom, Saskia Mulder and the genius that is Michelle Gomez), charming arsehole and addict Barney (the underrated James Lance), wheelchair bound idealist Kenny (Rory McCann) and, the best of a very good bunch, Derek Ridell’s gay football, and footballer, obsessive Rab.Ridell and Gomez’s performances are outstanding. The former completely believable and charming, the latter melodramatic and effortlessly comic. You may know Gomez from other unhinged performances in Irvine Welsh and Dean Cavanagh’s Wedding Belles and the surreal Green Wing. She is a wonderful screen presence whether tackling drama, as in The Acid House, or comedy, and her obvious lack of ego allows her to portray Janice, who is married to bisexual Jackie, as more than slightly unhinged. It is an over the top performance that never topples into ridiculous.
Ridell, who became a bit of a gay icon with this role, is a revelation as he lusts after Janice’s husband, then finds himself used and abused, before having his eyes opened by a holiday romance in series two. If your TV habits include American comedy you may recognise him from Ugly Betty, but he was most recently seen in this country as part of the great BBC/HBO drama Five Days. Someone employ this man on a regular basis. He deserves better.
The second series saw the introduction of Clare’s brash sister Jean, and a great performance from Henry Ian Cusick (Desmond from LOST and a fine footballer as well) as the odious publisher Miles. Any resemblance to the living is surely, purely, a coincidence. Often second series are a let down but not in this case. Like other, more famous, sitcoms Fawlty Towers and The Office, part of the appeal is the brevity of the run. There’s just enough time to become involved in the character’s lives, but not long enough to stop caring.
Clips are hard to come by as Channel 4 guard their comedy jealously, but here is a short one that is typical of the playfulness in Annie Griffin’s script. The ABBA overtones are brilliant as is Lars ‘confusion’:
Perhaps unsurprisingly it took a non-Scots writer (Griffin is an American who moved to the UK in 1981) to deliver such a programme and such an unbiased view of Glasgow. Someone with a fresh perspective. Griffin is also responsible for Festival, the underrated film about the Edinburgh Fringe which was released in 2005. It’s a terrifically black look behind the scenes of the festival, from highly paid comedians, to the most ‘am of dram’, and no-one comes out well. Similarly her writing for The Book Group is shaded on the blacker side of comedy, and there is plenty of real drama contained. It’s a comedy that doesn’t insult the intelligence of the viewer.
Channel 4 have made good British comedy since The Book Group (Nathan Barley, The IT Crowd and The Inbetweeners come to mind), but not enough, overly relying on American imports. There are great comic writers out there and this is what can happen when they are given a chance. If the The Book Group proves anything it is that Glasgow can be a setting without becoming part of the story itself, and that Annie Griffin should be producing more work than she has. The last thing I remember of hers was the one-off comedy/drama New Town, set in and around that part of Edinburgh. It was supposed to be a six-part drama, and the pilot won a couple of BAFTAS. The BBC decided not to pick it up, yet they were happy to commission Happy Holidays ( see No longer gemme?) Mental. No wonder Griffin has not written anything since. Such decisions must break her heart.
You can buy both series of The Book Group online for almost no money. It would almost be rude not to. You could do worse than pick up a copy of Festival while you’re at it. But that’s for another day.
In the US it is available online for free on Hulu here.
Further thoughts can be found at scotswhayhae.
Alistair’s latest thoughts on Scottish books appear on the first Monday of every month.