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Mark and Becky meet at a funeral. Like most couples they fall in love and get married, unfortunately like many couples one of them falls out of love with the inevitable consequences, as Mark keeps telling the audience, that after five years: "My wife left me"...
The late eighties and early nineties produced some great comedy shows as well as a slew of really god awful by the numbers sitcoms, having only the vaguest of memories of Joking Apart (1993) I was convinced that the show would fall into the latter category. Sure, it was written by Steven Moffat who had written for the Bafta winning Press Gang, has contributed stories for all of the new seasons of Doctor Who and is just about to embark on writing the scripts for the forthcoming Tin Tin trilogy of films, but then everyone writes a dud now and again.
So I sat to watch the first episode with some trepidation, only for the first few minutes to confirm my deepest suspicions, as each show opens with Mark (Robert Bathurst) doing a very poor stand-up routine about the disintegration of his marriage. With a heavy heart I determined to plough through the first episode, only to discover that I enjoyed it so much I watched the whole season in one sitting and was left very disappointed that I had missed it the first time round and that they didn’t get around to making anymore following Series Two.
Although the show has the bare bones of a sitcom structure you quickly discover that there is so much more going on. Okay, the stand-up didn’t work on a number of levels and by the second series was slowly dropped from the show. It worked by introducing the main theme, in that each episode starts with Mark telling the audience that his wife had left him. However, it is never really made clear where the stand-up was happening, it is unlikely that it is meant to be taken literally. It’s made very clear in the show that he writes comedies for a living but there is no indication that he performs. The clue to their existence is in his wife’s continued complaint that it was impossible to talk to someone who thinks in one-liners all the time. So the stand-up is Mark's inner thought processes, but it still doesn’t really work.
On top of these bare bones Moffatt layers some great comedy muscle. Mark, as a character, is not unsympathetic, but he does have a propensity, from usually a well meaning small lie, to turn a difficult situation into a Python-esque farce with many of the episode spiralling off into the surreal. Moffat has injected an air of reality about Mark’s relationship, which considering that he was going through a break-up himself imbues the whole show with a bittersweet flavour. Robert Bathurst mostly worked in the theatres except for minor roles in Red Dwarf and a more substantial part in Cold Feet. He portrays Mark as initially egotistical, especially towards his wife and her friends, though as the seasons progress he allows the audience to see Mark's vulnerable side.
Becky (Fiona Gilles), Mark’s wife is probably the most sympathetic character. As a voyeur watching their relationship Mark is funny, but you wouldn’t want to live with someone like this. Gilles also is a theatrical actress who has had roles in Peak Practice, Casualty and Jeeves and Wooster. Even when she is trying to tell him that their marriage is over all Mark can do is crack more jokes. Although she gets an appropriate measure of her own funny lines, she is at her acting best when she is trying to play the role straight.
A two hander would have limited comedy possibilities so Mark and Becky have close friends in the form of Tracy and Robert Glazebrook (Tracie Bennet, Paul Raffield) a slightly dim couple who Mark spends most of his time putting down. Initially the characters are more caricatures, although circumstances throughout the show go some way to rounding them off they never quite loose the naivety, which makes then so endearing.
Tracie Bennet, who you should recognise from her extensive film and television work, takes an interesting journey through the two series - from dimwit to sexy dimwit. Although she remains in character for the majority of the stories the last story of series two sees her stretching her acting muscles when she impersonates a television divorce lawyer. Her Husband, Robert, goes on an even more bizarre journey through the series, from loving husband to cheated husband to transvestite. Like Bennet, he is there as a foil for Mark's wit and angst so has little acting room to manoeuvre. Still, together they make a delightful addition to the show, which would not have worked so well in their absence.
The last character, which completes the ensemble cast, is Trevor, Becky’s lover. Trevor is played by Paul-Mark Elliott who has popped up in diverse parts in Press Gang, Blakes 7, Murder Most Horrid and Brass Eye, and the character exists to be Mark’s hate object, in fact he spends more time hating Trevor than he does trying to understand what went wrong with his marriage. Elliott does what he can with the role and eventually the audience views him as another sympathetic character.
Realising that starting a show about the break-up of a relationship from the point of its disintegration would leave the audience cold - after all we know nothing about these people, so why should we care - Moffat juxtaposes what is happening to Mark and Becky with flashbacks, which detail how they met and fell in love. This does more than just fill in the back story, their placement also enhances the pain and poignancy of what is happening to them both, following the separation. This devise is used less and less as the two series progressed.
The first six episodes of Series One, which details the first month of their separation, was originally transmitted in January 1993 and was not particularly promoted or well served by the BBC, although a second series was commissioned the BBC’s disinterest meant there would never be a third series.
Given that the show was not well served it's surprising just how good the DVD package is. The show it in its original 4:3 aspect ratio with an excellent picture which has been digitally restored. The disc also contains a documentary Fool if you think it’s Over which looks at the background to the show and episodes one, three, four and five have commentaries from Steven Moffat, Robert Bathurst, Fiona Gillies and Tracie Bennett
All in all this is a little gem of a program that missed the attention that it deserves.