[19 November 2009]
The somewhat overlooked British comedy series People Like Us comprises a collection of short spoof documentaries (12 half-hour episodes in total), which first aired on BBC2 between 1999 and 2001. According to the BBC’s own website, a third helping of the acclaimed show was ditched in favour of producing - the now better known - The Office, whose mockumentary format closely apes the style and tone of the splendid, superior People Like Us.
The show began life on BBC Radio 4 with three runs broadcast between 1995 and 1997. Eleven of the 12 television episodes were adapted from these radio plays, with just one original episode - ‘The Actor’ - added to the show’s 2001 outing. In each episode fictional documentarian Roy Mallard (a disembodied Chris Langham) calamitously narrates a fly-on-the-wall account of a workplace. The first six episodes, for example, feature him shadowing and tentatively quizzing firstly the managing director of a manufacturing plant and then subsequently: an estate agent; police officer; solicitor; photographer; and head teacher.
The series acted as a springboard for an astonishing plethora of British talent; amongst those appearing briefly are: Julia Davis (Nighty Night), Tamsin Greig (Green Wing), Robert Webb (Peep Show), David Tennant (Dr. Who) and Bill Nighy (State of Play).
Its Radio 4 origins are apparent in that, for the most part, Roy remains unseen; allowing the viewers’ imagination to be put to work. In addition, most of the humour is based in characterful wordplay and it celebrates a timeless and very British brand of idiocy. Roy and those he interviews frequently garble clichés and mix metaphors, and in doing so, they often inadvertently highlight the absurdity of a variety of situations.
For example, in the episode ‘The Bank Manager’ Roy describes a meeting between a young couple applying for a mortgage and bank employee Elaine, by saying, “Elaine’s job is to take them through the various impossibilities step by step.” Occasionally such mangling is purely surreal in effect; so in ‘The Photographer’, Will Rushmore’s ex-wife comments that “Will wouldn’t know one end of his arse if it bit him.”
Roy is a bumbling incompetent who never attempts to position himself above his subjects, and in fact frequently achieves quite the opposite. At the end of every episode he draws conclusions of pure comedic gibberish, seeking to demonstrate how those he has captured are, simply, “people like us”. In the episode ‘The Mother’—in an admirable but hapless attempt to emphasise with the plight of working mums—he concludes, “if the paradox is that it is our hopes and aspirations that imprison us, then maybe at the end of the day we’re all women.”
Although predominantly self-contained, a smattering of running gags delightfully pepper each episode. Interviewees reliably balk with disbelief when Roy discloses he is married. He is physically as clumsy and nervous as he is verbally inept: fainting at the sight of a needle; contriving to repeatedly spill hot liquid on himself; blundering into the path of a swinging golf club. His name is repeatedly misheard and variously misspelt; as Troy Mallard, Roy Nolland and Roy Mannard.
The episode entitled ‘The Journalist’ features some of the show’s most amusing sequences. Roy’s opening narration is a typical linguistic shambles: “As a new century gets underway both economically and inevitably, the town of Long Ashton with its population of 42,000 is poised interestingly between Nottingham and Leicester. Once famous for being the best kept secret in the Midlands, today it goes about its business of commerce with an almost palpable sense of its own no-nonsensisness.”
The focus of the episode is the local newspaper—the Long Ashton Gazette—and during Roy’s ‘interrogation’ of its editor Tony Gerrier he captures him ruminating on his former marriage and career choices, musing, “you only get one chance in life to fuck it up and I took it with both hands.” In ‘The Journalist’, People Like Us affectionately lampoons the low-excitement world of the local press, with the crime-desk reporting on a spate of wheely-bin thefts and the paper’s young reporter Juliet Godard following-up what is described with po-faced dramaticism as, “a tip-off which could lead her into the very heart of a golden-wedding anniversary.” Roy also has a tendency to incorporate participants’ incriminating utterances unironically into his running commentary; so in this episode as he follows the paper’s self-proclaimed “ace” reporter he comments that Helen is pursuing, “a story which she believes will blow the lid off this poxy little town”.
Considering the caliber of those involved and the impact the show had on the British comedy landscape (its influence can be discerned not only in The Office but in Little Britain and Look Around You, amongst others), it is very disappointing to find the complete collection of this fine series presented without extras. Carping aside, People Like Us is a delight: consistent, idiosyncratic and for the most part, genial satire.