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Puppy Love BBC4

November 28, 2014

Puppy Love the new series on BBC 4 is approaching its third episode to praise about its good natured humour and joy at the fact that it’s “by the same people” who made Getting On, the brilliant comedy drama set in the geriatric ward of an NHS hospital. I know better than to think that just because something is by the same people, that it will be just as good if not better than the other thing you enjoyed. See sequels for a perfect example. I also know that just because something is centred on a subject closer to your heart (dogs, in this case), that doesn’t mean there isn’t room to mess it up completely.

The problem with the phrase “by the same people” is that it doesn’t tell you as much as you might expect. For one thing, Puppy Love certainly isn’t by all the same main people as Getting On – though Vicki Pepperdine and Joanna Scanlan are present, Jo Brand is not involved. The director is Susan Tully whose background in in soap operas, having directed for EastEnders and The Bill, as well as acting in EastEnders and Grange Hill. She also has a couple of period and crime dramas to her name, though as genres, I prefer to call these “pretending not to be soap operas”.

Tully directed the third series of Getting On but not the first two, which I thought were marginally stronger. These series had a mix of directors, as is usual for TV, including one Peter Capaldi – you may know him, he’s the one who currently flies through space and time in a small blue box. He starred alongside Scanlan in The Thick of It, a satire close to Getting On in its lifelike presentation. He is not involved in Puppy Love. It’s impossible to say how relevant these points are, only that they indicate that “by the same people” is not all it seems. Whatever the reason, Puppy Love resembles Getting On about as much as Mrs Brown’s Boys does.

What makes successful people follow up a project like Getting On with one like Puppy Love? Do they get too confident, or face too much pressure by fans to make more stuff, or are the Powers that Be just obsessed with formula comedy? The formula for Puppy Love is simple enough: dogs + writers of Getting On + cast of Getting On = good. This assumes that dogs are an instant sell, which is bad news. It encourages laziness in casting and writing. There isn’t any reason to assume that people who can write a wry comedy-drama about an NHS hospital are qualified to do the same about dog training in Wirral. Jo Brand was a former psychiatric nurse, and one of the anchors of her contribution was not making any attempt to play it funny, but rather highlight the bleaker, blacker comedy. There isn’t any darkness and the heart of Puppy Love. Maybe I’m morbid, but I think it could use some.

Yes, both Pepperdine and Scanlan have “family connections” (as they put it) in Wirral and are both dog owners. Since the series isn’t hugely about the culture of Wirral and lots of people own dogs, this doesn’t seem all that relevant. What it might do is make someone think they know enough about the subject to not worry about extensive research. Puppy Love is also part improvised, a worrying addition from all but the most incredibly quick comedians and actors. The series contains real people and their dogs, for authenticity… The problem is that real people and their dogs don’t fit that well in a scripted comedy. Concentrating too much on the feel of what is essentially a set (Wirral) might distract from the integral point, which is whether or not the script is sharply written and full of keen observations.

On the whole, I think not. A comedy about dogs and their antics looks good on paper, but in practise the amount of humour you can get out of them could, and does, fill a YouTube video. That means the human characters must be the driving force of the comedy, not poop jokes and dogs flying back and forth. The human comedy could be a lot better; it turns out the writers decided to go for a love rivalry, or at least, something that one of them thinks is a love rivalry, which is just as bad. That involves one person being baldly rude to the other poor sap, inappropriate with the object of their affection and jumping into conversations which, if allowed to develop, would probably have been funnier.

Getting On would let dialogues play out for longer to develop relationships and characters. People were civil, if not exactly happy about it. They had to be in order to get on with their work, and that was what held it as a comedy; you could identify with the frustrations of these people even if you had no connection to work in the NHS, because the comedy comes from recognition of the frustrations of the working world in a society which is polite in a very constricted and constrained way.

Puppy Love has no constraint. None of the characters do. People flirt with an awful obviousness, they flounce away when they get in a huff, they yell and literally run around in a panic. That’s a panic, not a fluster. Flustered people exist in the world much more commonly, they say odd things which slip by their notice and stick our memories as hilarious. Even though Vicki Pepperdine is the Head of the Fluster Party, her fluster in Puppy Love is lost in the place of much more direct, laboured jokes that would not be out of place in a comedy with canned laughter.

The one bit I really liked was a part where Pepperdine’s character was interrogating her teenage daughter at length about the history of her sexual activity. This had young person’s counsellor / social worker written all over it. What works about that scene is that Pepperdine shines at portraying qualified, middle class people who are bit clueless about how best to interact with human beings; she played much the same part in Getting On. It speaks volumes when the best part of a new comedy is that is has parts or characters directly lifted from an old one.

Since the show isn’t as topical, doesn’t have as much pathos, isn’t as accessible and doesn’t feel so well informed, what is the driving force behind it? I get the horrible feeling that the “point” of the comedy is the Nana V character, dog trainer and aggressive flirt extraordinaire. That would make it a character comedy, much like Mrs Brown’s Boys.

Character comedies aren’t my favourite. They hang too much of their comedy on the idea that one person is so funny, you’ll never need anything else. This is not the case more often than it is. Characters meant to carry a TV series are by necessity larger than life, as they have to be larger than every other character by a long enough way for you to know whose comedy it is and when to laugh loudest. That gets old, quickly, as characters become caricatures easily when they aren’t allowed any subtlety or variation in case they upset their regular viewers; for whom watching their favourite comedy like visiting their gran. You’ve heard all the stories before, but it’s comforting to know that gran is always gran. If she started swearing at children (or indeed, stopped) you would be highly disconcerted.

Included in character comedies is that enemy of wit; catch phrases. Catch phrases instantly make a caricature out of a character, which makes them more popular but less funny. Humour is about surprise, catch phrases are about familiarity. Comedy series have been able to run forever off of caricatures with reliable catch-phrases, predictable behaviour, consistency and gags that you wait for, that you expect to get and look forward to from the start of the gag to the end. The Catherine Tate Show was a fine one for this, and Little Britain no less so.

In Puppy Love, Nana V has the same anecdotes and advice she repeats, just enough to make me suspect that the show is sneakily trying to drop in a few things which behave a bit like catch-phrases, but don’t look like them. If the show is supposed to be more like one of the popular long-runners and less like the cult-following Getting On, then fair enough; but, this is why nothing should ever be sold and marketed under the banner of being written by the same people. It gives the wrong impression.

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