BBC1, JANUARY 9
Remember the days when The Voice was mocked as the Lidl X-Factor? After just one week of Boy George lighting up the show on Saturday, the era of Cowell bossing singing contests already seems an eternity ago.
True, The Voice had an uncertain start. But it took a while for Pop Idol to mutate into One Direction-era X Factor, and now The Voice looks like it should be the best acquisition ITV has made from BBC1 since those two Geordie fellas off Byker Grove.
As entertaining a coach as Tom Jones was, he was pretty much forgotten from the moment Boy George announced himself as “The pitch bitch.” Yes, he was catty, but he was naturally able to charm the nervous contestants too, telling one: “Who would your mum want you to choose as coach? Me? Well, never argue with your mother.”
Most of his waspishness was reserved for fellow newbie Paloma Faith, mocking her attempts at trying to claim she’s an outsider misfit. That notion didn’t pass muster with the man who did so much for pop’s gay rights in the 80s.
However, while The X Factor’s forced hysteria would have had George and Faith chucking water over each other by the third insult, The Voice’s ability to let its coaches have, y’know, real personalities meant that their insults were traded with genuine humour.
Returning coach Ricky Wilson pretty much admitted he was hoping to get a bit of kip after his protégé Stevie McCrorie won the last series, telling Faith: “I was driven by ego to want to win the last series, so I was hoping to relax this time.” Indeed, he pretty much snoozed through the first few contestants, but the competitive edge that drove Kaiser Chiefs to the stadiums was back by the time he subtly charmed a couple of singers onto his team.
Jones accused the show of becoming more interested in freakshow contestants when he was fired. Getting 79-year-old 70s comedian Bernie Clifton on showed Jones had a point. And yet, not only did Clifton have a pretty decent croon on him, but Wilson’s joy when he was taught how to do the comedian’s trademark ostrich dance has already set a high benchmark for 2016’s most charming moment of primetime Saturday night TV.
Now all The Voice needs is to find a singer who can actually sell a few records.
THE TRACEY ULLMAN SHOW
BBC1, JANUARY 11
She’s admitted it herself, but there are few British people under the age of 45 who have heard of Tracey Ullman. One of the original wave of alternative comedians, she went to the US on the back of sitcoms with Lenny Henry and Jennifer Saunders, where she promptly discovered The Simpsons – Springfield’s finest started out as a sketch within Ullman’s first US comedy show.
Ullman is back living in Britain now, and rightly being reassessed for her impact on comedy. Initially, this makes it odd that BBC1 have dumped her returning sketch show at 10:45pm on a Monday night.
Sadly, The Tracey Ullman Show doesn’t seem to have realised how comedy has moved on since its star last lived here. There are some nice ideas for characters – Dame Judi Dench as a kleptomaniac; Angela Merkel as a bawdy boozehound – but they’re too one-note and repetitive to have any impact.
Ullman is a gifted impressionist, but the clue as to the show’s failings come in its credits. She relies on a team of writers who are jobbing backroom panel show hacks, rather than anyone with real invention.
It’s a shame, because the final sketch of two meek librarians became a Billy Elliott-level musical production number about how Conservative cuts are killing libraries. That one sketch merited primetime exposure. It also had a passion lacking elsewhere. It’s great to have Ullman back, but her own show isn’t something worthy of her. For now, it looks as if the BBC were right to quietly bury it.
CHANNEL 4, JANUARY 11
Familiar – if at all – as Charlotte Rampling’s junior legal helper in the second series of Broadchurch, Phoebe Waller-Bridge has also quietly established herself as an impassioned stand-up.
It’s led to her being rewarded with a housesharing sitcom on Channel 4. The elevator pitch would be “What the Fresh Meat generation do when they graduate”, to which the answer is “Get jobs where they can only afford to live as property sitters in a disused hospital.” Or, it’s the anti-Friends.
That’s a pretty bleak premise for a sitcom, and there were some great lines about how this is the first generation whose housing choices are non-existent. French art teacher Melodie rattles off a list off pleasures banned to residents – “No pets, no smoking, no sex” and so on – before deadpanning: “It’s a blast.”
But Crashing wraps its despair in fine broad strokes relationship comedy. Waller-Bridge plays Lulu, a lifelong pal of hospital resident Anthony, whose friendship isn’t as Platonic as either of them pretends. Anthony – played by Damien Molony from C5’s under-rated cop drama Suspects – is engaged to not-as-dippy-as-she-seems Kate, who just happens to look a lot like Lulu.
Some characters are thus far too stereotypical, like randy estate agent Sam, but there’s more than enough promise in the likes of scene-stealing mousy housemate Fred (Amit Shah) to suggest that Waller-Bridge could earn those plaudits as “The British Amy Schumer.”
Anyone dismayed at the idea that Fresh Meat is coming to an end would be advised to dive in.