Saturday, 14 May 2011

Bigging Up PhoneShop

Still in new (or newish) sitcom mode  - I can't pontificate about doo wop all the time - I'd like to put in a word for PhoneShop, already broadcast on E4, but which has just started a run on Channel 4 last night.

In the Friday night slot, too - which would suggest a certain amount of faith in its potential, even if it's been securely sandwiched between very old Peter Kay material and Ricky Gervais.

That first episode, script edited by Ricky Gervais no less, had already been shown on 4 as a pilot in a comedy showcase series, and I remember liking it then. I don't know whether it was subsequently tweaked - don't think so - but it was very satisfying to watch again last night.

Written and directed by Phil Bowker with additional contributions from the cast (improv during rehearsals?), it's set in a high street mobile phone shop with its bewildering array of contracts and blarney, so you can't say it's not tapping into the zeitgeist bigtime.

And yet it's a very - I was going to say old fashioned comedy, but rather it's a sitcom which obeys the right sort of rules. For example, there' s a wonderful scene at the end of the final episode of the series (Soldier, Swinger, Shelley, Shelley) where, during the course of an evening, the characters, off on their own little adventures, have been variously terrified, humiliated and defeated. Instinctively, they make towards the one dependable source of refuge: the phone shop. And only the briefest explanations, echoing the episode's title, are necessary.

That, I think, is key to why it works. The characters, all insecure and pathetic in their own different ways, have formed a quasi-family. And however ridiculous he may appear at other times, there is a convincing sense of compassion and understanding from the dad figure as he unlocks the door and offers to stick the kettle on.

That is a fitting end to the series but I do hope we'll be passing through those doors again. My memory from the E4 showing is that there is a gradual improvement as the series goes on, but even the pilot is still pretty good, and if you're watching online, on 4OD (if you can stomach two lots of adverts), I'd suggest you watch the episodes in order.

Don't be put off by the fact that it's a young person's world (with the exception of the dad figure, the manager) and that a certain amount of what one can only term "jive jargon" has to be tolerated during most interactions. Characters' motivations are crystal clear, and whether or not you get each reference you can see how language is being used all the time to establish status.

This is particularly clear in that first episode, where representatives from another branch turn up with the sole intention of demoralising their rivals. There is also a wonderful detail: an employee imprisoned for fraud has become, quite literally, an icon to the remaining workers: a wall of the manager's office is devoted to a Belfast-style mural of this departed saint, this martyr of the mobile, with the slogan "What would Gary do?"

There is a neat bit of business with the sacred relic of Gary's bloodstained tie, first shown to the new worker by way of example, later used provocatively as a facecloth by one of the rivals (below) then finally adopted as a kind of amulet by a diffident female worker (top) who suddenly finds the courage to chase her rival out the door and down the high street. By and large, though, it's a male world, and there is, however lightheartedly, a certain amount of exploration of masculinity.

The tone is interesting: it is sort of cartoonlike throughout, but it's consistent - and characters are clearly differentiated. As with so many sitcoms including The Night Shift, the first episode uses the device of a new character arriving on the scene in order to introduce us to the setup. Interestingly, however, although he is naive in some ways (and resolutely unhip) he is already stuffed with details and statistics about the company, and he has an academic background, so however much he is mocked by some of the others, he will be useful to them as well.

I'm not going to go much further into chapter and verse, partly because a) I can't remember subsequent episodes all that well, beyond retaining the impression that the series gradually gets sharper and b) because it's not really necessary. The characters are flawed and deluded in different ways, are as mutually dependent as any quasi-family in sitcoms, and that is really all you need to know. It would take a Young Person to appreciate fully all the linguistic references but I'm happy to enjoy PhoneShop as part of the great British sitccom tradition of self-deluding failures battling gamely on.

The Night Shift
Peep Show

Channel 4's 4OD page for PhoneShop here.  
A second series of PhoneShop has been commissioned and will be shown on E4 this autumn.


  1. Really nice piece on a great show. Well done, fam.

  2. Little Gary - a great honour, Sir. You was framed!

    Tony aka Pismotality