sat 08/08/2020

Lead Balloon, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

Lead Balloon, BBC Two

Lead Balloon, BBC Two

Older but not wiser: Jack Dee still excels as the failed stand-up Rick Spleen

Lead Balloon is shot on location (pictured below) and without any kind of laugh track, live or synthetic, and yet it’s almost a parody of a Jurassic-era sitcom. The old-fashioned idea was that a sitcom should trap its characters in eternal stasis – Steptoe and Son being the perfect Beckettian exemplar of a world from which, tragicomically, there is no escape. (The flipside was Reggie Perrin, which explored the consequences for a sitcom character when he finds the exit door.) The whole template has taken a knock in recent years with shows like The Office and even Green Wing eager to tell an evolving story. But the success of Peep Show and Lead Balloon suggests that audiences do also yearn for the song to remain the same, for the prison bars. You know where you are with Rick Spleen: exploring the contours of an unhappiness which refuses to look in the mirror.

237614In Lead Balloon, Dee and his writing partner Pete Sinclair have even managed to keep exactly the same plot structure going across umpteen episodes. We always find Rick going disastrously about his business, in this instance working on a novel in which his fictional alter ego commits suicide at the start. There is often an opportunity for him to chase some form of self-advancement – here a Sunday Times photoshoot with his more successful wife Mel (Raquel Cassidy), into which he was eager to manoeuvre himself. He even brought her a morning cuppa when she said she needed to sleep on it, hilariously plonking the mug down harder the second time by way of urgent reveille.

Though his American writing partner Marty (Sean Power) is never deceived, Rick fools himself that the world is perpetually on tenterhooks to cut him some slack, maybe even pay its respects. Meanwhile he reserves the right to look down on others, either on account of their sunnier outlook - Michael at the café  (Tony Gardner), also working on a novel – or for their gloomier disposition - the Slavic home help Magda (Anna Crilly), who was mystified that Rick had acquired a pair of trendy specs with 20:20 lenses. His only redeeming feature is his indulgence of his daughter Sam, whose awkward mixture of manipulation and unworldliness is beautifully captured by Antonia Campbell Hughes, and by extension her slacker boyfriend Ben (Rasmus Hardiker). You can never quite understand why the lovely Mel has put up with him all these years, but that’s eternal stasis for you. She’s trapped too.

In this episode, titled “Pig”, Rick hired an exotic pet to impress the Sunday Times interviewer that he and Mel are a cool celebrity couple who, in his perception of cool celebrities, make their own bread and keep an interesting animal. The pet was a small black pig. The pig, while messy, was not as messy as Rick, with whom spending any time at all remains as excruciating as ever. It’s as if he and the rest of them have never been away. The performances are just as they should be. You wouldn’t want to see Dee stray too far from his miserable comfort zone, but he has always been brilliant at disgust. Don’t stay away so long next time.

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