thu 18/04/2024

Very British Problems, Channel 4 | reviews, news & interviews

Very British Problems, Channel 4

Very British Problems, Channel 4

Attempt to turn tweets into telly had too much to live up to

Vic Reeves' prostate was an unexpected highlight

The appeal for commissioners of turning Rob Temple’s superb Very British Problems Twitter feed into a TV show is easy to see. The account has more than a million followers and the planning discussions will, no doubt, have included the words, “brand”, “awareness” and “maximise”. Probably “leverage” as well, but used wrongly, and by an idiot. Presented here as an extended collection of talking heads, it’s also cheap.

Julie Walters will have cost a few quid for the voiceover – as will the contributors – but even when you add on the cost of the crew and the petrol to get to each of the houses for the interviews, you’ve probably got enough left to stop off at Thurrock for a Ginsters on the way home.

It’s not quite that simple though. There’s something rather beautiful – and unique – about Twitter’s 140 character form. Thoughts aren’t allowed to sprawl, they are forced to focus. Words have to earn their keep and work harder than normal – like a hit-and-run haiku with an amnesty on syllable count. While print is a format jump that can ­be survived quite easily – a book is, after all, basically an origami iPad that’s less compromised by direct contact with liquid – the move to TV is slightly harder to imagine.

Everyone changes their voice depending on audience. Well, apart from Brian Sewell and Will Self perhaps.

Indeed, the biggest, but by no means only, problem faced by the show from the outset was its lack of brevity. Very British Problems, the feed, works by eliciting instant recognition while avoiding cliché. It manages this through beautifully skewed observation and skilfully inventive word choice. There were some nicely framed observations here, but there wasn’t the space to take them in properly before another face popped up to busk loosely around a thing that we, y’know, do… and we’re like… and then they’re like… What this ended up being like, was a room full of people who know they have to speak but lack anything of substance to say.

Not that the blame can be laid at the door of the contributors really. Which of us wouldn’t take the money? But do we really need anyone – however engaging they may be – telling us what going to the hairdresser or travelling by taxi is like? It was an hour of having your life narrated back to you by someone trying too hard to be funny and subsequently misstepping. And we already have John Bishop for that.

In fairness, for the most part, the talking heads, who included Nigel Havers, Grace Dent, Vic Reeves, Ruth Jones, Stephen Mangan, Andrew Flintoff, and a host of comedians (suggesting that it was out of season for Mock the Week), did an OK job. They did what they were asked. James Corden, for example, described changing his accent depending on his audience, saying, “I don’t know why I do it, but I do it all the time.” It’s certainly a thing that people do, but it’s a perfectly normal trait of someone trying to fit in and be liked. It’s universal. Everyone does it. Everyone. Well, apart from Brian Sewell and Will Self perhaps. The point is, it’s not a problem – it’s a social coping mechanism.

Johnny Vegas, meanwhile, discussed his paranoia about shaking hands with big, strong-handed Alpha males. While a problem – and a unique one – it’s unique to men with small hands, not the British.

Not that Very British Problems needs me to contradict it – it managed that perfectly well itself. I know it’s supposed to be a bit of fun, and I probably shouldn’t be looking too hard, but one minute the British hate smalltalk, the next it’s just southerners. On the one hand not kicking up a fuss because someone nicked our train seat is incredibly British, but then so, necessarily, is stealing someone’s train seat in the first place. It was as confused as you might expect a programme edited together from lots of unconnected conversations might be.

Crucially, much of what makes the VBP Twitter feed so acutely funny lies in the disconnect between what we say and what we mean. For example: “ ‘This place looks nice" – translation: "This place sells booze.” Or "I'll be up in a sec" – translation: "I'll be up when I've read 92% of the internet.” These are unexpected treats from a sharp mind, yet ones that instantly resonate. The programme, while occasionally touching on this gap between intent and action, described it, skirted it, but never defined it with the same finesse or flair.

The programme wasn’t bad exactly, but it did feel lazy and almost entirely disconnected from the wit of its inspiration. With some more thought, there must be a way of harnessing the quick hit of a tweet in a TV programme, but it’s not going to be found in the off-the-cuff anecdotes of celebrities.

It was an hour of having your life narrated back to you by someone trying too hard to be funny. And we already have John Bishop for that


Editor Rating: 
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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