|Caitlin Moran sees Ricky Gervais make an awkward entrace in The Simpsons, and enjoys Sean Bean blowing up India.
Well here’s one of the TV events of the year: Ricky Gervais’s episode of The Simpsons — Homer Simpson: This is Your Wife — scripted by and starring himself, in the first example of an “outsider” steering the big yellow charabanc. Viewers may find that their initial anticipation for the event is somewhat dampened by the curious introduction to the episode, in which Gervais himself appears before the credits to, fundamentally, apologise for what you are about to see.
“You can only make (the show)slightly worse,” he says, by way of a non-amuse-bouche. “There’s no way ’s creators are going to go ‘Hey, this is amazing! We should have been doing this from the beginning!’ It’s the best. You just survive. That’s all I was hoping for.”
Then the title sequence begins — a real-life version, commissioned especially for the Gervais episode — which only adds to the slight air of freakshow about the whole project. Given that everyone is in agreement that The Simpsons is one of the high points of human achievement, all this “special” treatment — Gervais’s introduction, the title sequence — seems a little odd. It’s like believing in a special, razzier God who is just for holidays.
The show itself, when it finally starts, turns out to be a curious hybrid — half-Gervais, half-Simpson; it works more as a conversation piece than a classic episode. The Simpsons go on a wife-swap reality TV show, and Marge ends up as the temporary wife of Charles Heathbar — Gervais — who falls in love with her. Little more happens in the episode than Gervais singing a bad love song to Marge, and the rest of the Simpsons commenting on Gervais’s awkward presence (“I bet he’s gay.” “You take for ever to say nothing.”) As with all of Gervais’s projects, it does come across as a project of enormous solipsism — in this case, Homer Simpson: This is Your Wife is an episode of Extras in which the Simpsons are the guest stars.
The crux of the matter is that Gervais’s pace, timing and comic motivation differ wildly from those of The Simpsons. He is one slightly evil man from Reading who excels in gleefully observed, slowly intensifying social discomfort; The Simpsons, on the other hand, is written by a committee of hypercaffeinated Harvard graduates who try to shoe-horn as many gags into each frame as their felt-tips will allow. Stylistically, the marriage is awkward — rather like Lou Reed duetting with Abba at Live Aid. Still, a great many points for referring to a lift as “the uppity box”.
I’d never watched Sharpe before. I have never seen the point of Sean Bean — if I’ve ever needed what Sean Bean (see interview, page 42) offers to my life, it’s been adequately met by staring at next door’s lav while shouting: “There’s many a mickle makes a muckle, Gandalf.”
Still, Bean’s been making these pugilistic Napoleonic-era TV movies for 13 years now — always wearing the same, presumably by now quite rancid, black jerkin. Major Sharpe, it seems, has a long-term commitment to baling out whole armies, thanks to his status as the only bloke with enough BALLS to single-handedly storm a fort, or with enough UP TOP to know about the whole fortitudinous mickle/muckle arrangement.
Well blow me down and indeed, as it turns out, up, but it all turns out to be quite enjoyable. While the bodycount in Sharpe’s Challenge escalates into the thousands over the course of two episodes, and scarcely ten minutes go by without a massive explosion and/or an artillery attack, it all has a happy, wryly amused brio that keeps the whole thing galloping along. Having previously taken his BALLS and what he’s got UP TOP all across Europe, this time Sharpe is in colonial India, fighting an evil rajah. Deciding to stop the rebellion singlehandedly — “I don’t see no bugger else doing it” — Sharpe ends up with a “whole bloody armeh” to save, which he does with typical stoicism and irritability. My favourite bit is when a dying Hindu explains reincarnation to him. “We all keep coming back,” he explains to Sharpe, who is squatting next to him.
“Aye, I know,” Sharpe replies, clearly thinking of his previous 13 episodes.
Finally, another curmudgeon with balls and stuff up top — John Osborne — gets an evening to himself on Five. Near the top of the documentary about his life comes a fairly typical moment — a 1971 recording of Osborne reading from his works. At the time, he looked like the dweebiest man alive: his glasses look as if they belong to someone called Barbara, and his teeth are so English he’s practically eating them. But as he reads from his 1961 letter to Tribune — “You have instructed me in my hatred for 30 years now . . . you have perfected it. You are rotting, England, and soon you will disappear” — he illustrates the blast-furnace fury he brought to cold, soggy Britain at the time, and perfec-tly justifies the playwright David Hare’s subsequent, eloquent deification of him.
However, as Hare goes on to point out, there’s never any shortage of people willing to have a pop at Osborne and his oeuvre, and I rather suspect it’s because, in the event, he turned out to be a false prophet. After all, this was a man who loudly and famously proclaimed Britain dead, rotted and doomed in 1961. What a bummer it must have been for him, then, when the Beatles came along just a year or two later.
The Simpsons, Sun, Sky One, 6.30pm; Sharpe’s Challenge, Sun/Mon, ITV1, 9pm; John Osborne and the Gift of Friendship begins Tues, Five, 7.15pm.
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