DEBORAH ROSS: Comedy heaven! And even a Zoom joke that’s funny…


Wednesday, BBC1 


Sitting In Limbo

Monday, BBC1


Two excellent shows this week: one that is pure joy, and one that will drive you to such anger you may well wish to push every slavery statue there ever was into Bristol dock. (Or any dock.) Between the two of them it means, alas, no room to review the revival of What Not To Wear, now called You Are What You Wear and presented by Rylan Clark-Neal, although if you were wondering whether we are still being told that ‘vertical stripes’ will make us look ‘slimmer’… we are!

Michael Sheen plays himself, alongside David Tennant, in Staged. Tennant plays himself as the less sure, more desperate one, while Sheen is prickly and must be flattered and cajoled

Michael Sheen plays himself, alongside David Tennant, in Staged. Tennant plays himself as the less sure, more desperate one, while Sheen is prickly and must be flattered and cajoled

The pure joy – that is, a pure, pure joy and, quite possibly, heaven – is the new comedy series, Staged. So funny. So so soooooo funny. It stars actors David Tennant and Michael Sheen as themselves. But they’re not really themselves. It will be compared to The Trip, and while it’s true this wouldn’t exist without that – just as, say, This Country wouldn’t exist without The Office – it is also its own man, minus the Michael Caine impressions (thank God, they were exhausting) and, of course, they can’t go anywhere.

The two, who co-starred in Good Omens and are friends, are each stuck in their homes. Tennant in London, Sheen in South Wales. Their real-life partners (Georgia Tennant and Anna Lundberg) play their partners. There have been other series written and filmed during lockdown, such as ITV’s Isolation Stories and the BBC’s Unprecedented, which weren’t terribly successful because, I can now see, they were about the situation rather than the characters. Here, it’s about ego and vanity and need, and the character work is terrific. As is the opportunity to spy into their homes. (The Tennant household is fond of monochrome botanical wallpaper; Sheen is a no-fuss, old-stone-fireplace sort of fella.)

Told in six, 15-minute episodes (two per week), the conceit is that the pair were due to co-star in a West End theatre production of Pirandello’s Six Characters In Search Of An Author but it was cancelled. Their director now wants them to rehearse over Zoom so that, when the theatres reopen, they are ahead of the game. Tennant is up for it, as is Georgia, who is desperate for him to have a distraction. ‘Remember when we went away for the weekend, got snowed in with the kids, and you went mad and started spelling everything backwards in your head?’ she says.

Tennant plays himself as the less sure, more desperate one, while Sheen is prickly and must be flattered and cajoled. Once theatres are back, says Tennant, ‘the British public will need entertainment’. Sheen is not convinced: ‘You think the British public will need Six Characters In Search Of An Author?’

‘It’s a funny play,’ argues Tennant.

‘Is it?’ muses Sheen.

This might not sound amazing here in print, as it’s about rhythm, their rapport and the relationship. Tennant is constantly outdone by Sheen. (His face when Sheen’s girlfriend brings him a platter of delicious snacks, or Sheen shows off the painting he did that morning.) There’s also a Zoom joke that actually works (hallelujah!). I think you trust me by now, don’t you? So trust me when I say it’s pure joy. And heaven, very possibly.

Sitting In Limbo was a dramatisation of the true story of Anthony Bryan, one of the victims of the UK government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy, which resulted in the Windrush Scandal in 2018. Bryan had come to this country (legally) from Jamaica with his mother at eight years old. He is British. But 50 years later he’s told he doesn’t have the right to be here, can’t work, can’t claim benefits, can’t access the NHS and is routinely humiliated by the immigration officials who treat him as a liar – his children are referred to as his ‘alleged children’ – and dispatch him to a prison-like detention centre. Twice.

At one point he was only 72 hours from ‘voluntary repatriation’ and being deported to Jamaica. Which he hasn’t ever visited in the intervening years. This would mean leaving his partner, children and grandchildren, but that’s OK as he was told ‘you will get up to £2,000 to resettle’. One word kept turning up in my notes and that word was ‘horrific’.

This was written by Bryan’s younger brother, Stephen S Thompson, a novelist, and it was straightforward storytelling. Pedestrian, perhaps. But that didn’t matter too much as the (horrific) facts spoke for themselves. Bryan (well played by Patrick Robinson) was, at first, baffled, but as he was drawn more and more into a Kafkaesque nightmare – when he repeatedly asks why this is happening to him all he hears from officials is, ‘We can not disclose that information’ – anger stirs. ‘It’s like I have to beg to stay in my own country and I’m sick of it,’ he said. It was one powerful scene after another. Immigration pounding at his door. Losing his home and, on the day they move out, his partner Janet (Nadine Marshall) standing by the wall marked where their family photos used to be.

This forced you to look British racism square in the eye. And made you want to push a statue into a dock. (Any dock; the dock is not the issue.)