TV Review: Father Figure, BBC1

jason byrne

I don't think I've ever wanted to like a series as much as I wanted to like Father Figure. I've loved its star, Jason Byrne, for years. As a freewheeling stand-up he takes some beating and I've seen him deliver some brilliantly unpredictable shows, dragging audience members onstage to be part of his cock-eyed manic mayhem. And I liked his Radio 2 series which has now become this BBC1 sitcom. So it is with a heavy heart that I have to say that Father Figure is painfully, excruciatingly disappointing.

I guess it's just not aimed at me. It goes out on BBC1, albeit post-primetime, and is a strange mix of Mrs Brown's Boys (it shares a producer, Stephen McCrum) and Outnumbered with a bit of messy Frank Spencer slapstick and stunts lobbed in for good measure. All cute, precocious kids, cartoon domestic relationships and flying trifles. Byrne plays Tom Whyte, the well-meaning but hapless house hubby who guards the home front while mum (Karen Taylor) goes out to work. There is a pretty talented predominantly Irish supporting cast, including Pauline McClynn (Father Ted's Mrs Doyle) as grandma and Michael Smiley (Tyres from Spaced, who must have a good agent, he is in everything at the moment). They look like they had a good time filming this and I hope they were paid well because I'm not sure how much this is going to enhance their CVs.

Father Figure is certainly not Wright Way-bad, it's just that I expected something, if not more subtle, certainly more inventive from Byrne. One can often see the gags coming a mile off and sometimes they still aren't as good as they could have been. There is a set-up with a broken toilet door, for example, that could have delivered so much more than it does. If the makers are trying to be subversive by avoiding the obvious that is not how it comes across. The supporting cast of talented familiar comedy circuit faces – including David Reed and Margaret Cabourn-Smith as Tom's insufferably twee neighbours – suggests that this is an attempt to marry old and new comedy, but most of the time it simply comes across as old.

I don't know how representative of the series episode one is – and I've heard that it gets better – but the tone feels all over the place. Maybe it's just me but there seemed to be an uncomfortable sexual undertow to the whole thing. At one point Tom's wife walks in and sees Tom behind his mum who is bent over and comes out with the old "it's a long time since he did that with me" joke (admittedly McLynn is only ten years older than Byrne, but she is playing his mum). Then later on grandad makes an aside about not being able to satisfy grandma's insatiable sexual demands. There's also a subtext of mum being a booze-fiend who can't wait to crack open a bottle of wine when she gets in from work. Apologies for being so puritanical.

Of course, I'm taking Father Figure way too seriously. It's a broad comedy and the studio audience clearly loved it. And there is some totally out of the blue surreal violence with kitchen utensils and food that is worthy of Vic and Bob. It's just that because I know that Jason Byrne can be so much funnier it feels as if the viewers are being shortchanged. There is one moment that underlines this. At one point the cute, totally unrealistic children decide to come into the lounge and do a Riverdance jig with dummies next to them hanging off a pole. This is a routine Byrne used to do in his stage act and it was spectacularly funny when he did it live. Here it just seems shoehorned in for a minor giggle.

For me that sums the show up – gags have been included because they seem funny, not because they will advance the plot in any meaningful way or offer emotional depth. I'm not saying all sitcoms have to be like The Office and have a toehold on some kind of emotional narrative arc, but Father Figure is so far away from anything approaching reality it simply baffles me.

But then maybe I'm wrong, maybe Father Figure will be a massive hit. The Radio 2 version certainly built up a head of steam. In a way I hope it is not a hit, because then Byrne might do less stand-up, which is what he is best at. But then, as I said, maybe this just isn't aimed at me. I'm clearly way too cool. Or maybe I have good taste. I prefer Louis. I might watch Father Figure again, but only to check if it is still as wince-makingly stinky as the first episode.

Father Figure is on BBC1 on Wednesdays at 10.35pm. 



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