TV comic genius 7: Saxondale

 

© BBC / Baby Cow Productions

 

Actor, comedian, writer and producer Steve Coogan has played the fictional TV and radio presenter Alan Partridge for 27 years now.  He’s essayed the cringe-inducing, incognizant, sociopathic, preening, Daily Mail-loving and utterly hapless Partridge not only on television – in sitcoms, chat-shows, mockumentaries, telethons and awards shows – but also on radio and stage and in YouTube shorts and a movie.  So ubiquitous is Partridge that it’s easy to forget that during his career Coogan has created other comic characters.

 

These include the drunken, philosophical and student-hating Paul Calf (“Is it a crime to want to live in a world of peace and harmony…?  Is it a crime to hit a student across the back of a head with a snooker ball in a sock?”) and his brassy and gagging-for-it sister Pauline; Portuguese singing sensation Tony Ferrino, winner of the Eurovision Song Contest and “also widely adored across Brazil and Iraq”; and the disquietingly exaggerated version of himself that Coogan played in Michael Winterbottom’s fly-on-the-wall travelogue-cum-sitcom The Trip (2010-16).

 

Then there’s Tommy Saxondale, eponymous hero of the BBC sitcom Saxondale that ran for two seasons in 2006 and 2007.  This show may not have produced as many belly-laughs as Alan Partridge in his countless permutations, but for my money it’s possibly Coogan’s finest hour.

 

© BBC / Baby Cow Productions

 

Tommy Saxondale’s backstory is that in the 1970s he served as a roadie to some top rock bands and engaged in the free-thinking and wild-living that were the spirit of the era: “I was sinking yards of ale with John Bonham,” he reminisces, “and hoovering up furlongs of the Devil’s dandruff with Lucifer Reed, as I used to call him.”  Now in his grizzled, paunchy middle-age, life is less giddy and glamorous.  He runs a small pest-control business in Stevenage, but likes to think he still talks the talk and walks the walk when it comes to turning on, tuning in and dropping out and generally giving the middle finger to The Man.  “Same old, same old, eh?” he sighs at one point.  “The global corporate bully sticking the jackboot into the defenceless ginger-haired boy of humanity.”  Unfortunately, the modern world surrounding Tommy doesn’t quite share his ideals.  And as he ages, he has increasing difficulty living up to those ideals himself.

 

In other words, Saxondale deals with the tension between youth and experience that’s familiar to everyone who manages to avoid an early death.  For Tommy, though, that tension’s particularly acute.  When the tectonic plates of Tommy’s youth and middle-age grind together, the results can be seismic – particularly since Tommy has a temper.  Each episode begins with him taking part in anger-management sessions run by mild-mannered therapist Alastair (James Bachmann).  Thanks to Tommy, Alastair has his work cut out.  “The notion that anger per se is a bad thing, “Tommy tells him, “I would say, respectfully, is horseshit.   If General MacArthur’s reaction to Pearl Harbour had been to go and find a quiet place and do some deep breathing, you’d be goose-stepping into this meeting today.  And there’d be a great big eagle on the wall.”

 

© BBC / Baby Cow Productions

 

Besides Alastair, people in Tommy’s life include his buxom Welsh girlfriend Magz (Ruth Jones), part Goth goddess and part earth-mother, who runs a shop called Smash the System and sells her own self-designed posters, pictures and T-shirts that offer unusual takes on religious, cultural and feminist figures like Joan of Arc (i.e. they’re naked, having sex and / or taking drugs); the youthful Raymond (played with wonderful somnolence by Rasmus Hardiker), Tommy’s lodger and apprentice in the pest-control trade who endures his boss’s endless philosophising and grumbling with a mixture of polite incomprehension and dazed indifference; and Vicky (Morwenna Banks), his contact at the agency that provides his firm with assignments.

 

The bubbly, airheaded but vicious Vicky – a sort of Spice Girl with rabies – takes huge pleasure in tormenting Tommy.  For instance, chiding him about his unkempt hair, she says: “Tommy-hobbit…  I wasn’t going to say anything, but somebody reckoned they saw you the other week outside Woolies, mumbling and having a tinkle in the bin by the escalators.”

 

© BBC / Baby Cow Productions

 

In addition to Tommy, Coogan plays a second, semi-regular character: Keanu Reeves, a zonked-out gay druggie who’s changed his name by deed-poll to that of “the cassock-wearing flying man from The Matrix”.  Tommy usually encounters Keanu when he’s de-lousing some squalid premises and finds him and his mates squatting there.  A conglomeration of childishness, petulance, pathos, facial tics and Mancunian vocal inflections, Keanu is a hilarious character, though an exhausting one.  It’s probably just as well that we only get a few short doses of him during Saxondale’s two series.

 

The comic injustices inflicted on Tommy are not far removed from those experienced by Alan Partridge.  When Tommy learns that a favourite pub has installed a karaoke machine, he rails against karaoke as “the last refuge of the creatively bereft.  A night when the suits can convince themselves that hooting along to Angels in the wrong key means they don’t have a sucking void where their souls are supposed to be.”  We just know that a few hours later, drunk out of his skull, he’ll be onstage with the karaoke mic, warbling Jeffrey Osborne’s On the Wings of Love – which is what happens.  And it’s entirely predictable that after boring a class of schoolkids with a lecture about life on the road with Pink Floyd, he discovers that the little shits have superglued him to his chair.

 

The difference between the two characters is that while Partridge has zero self-awareness, Tommy is at least partly conscious of his own ridiculousness.  This self-knowledge allows him to make amends for his failings, show some empathy for his fellow characters and even, occasionally, enjoy a few victories.

 

I found Saxondale’s first series very agreeable, but I thought the second series was wonderful.  Perhaps it’s because Coogan and series co-writer Neil Maclennan realised that Tommy’s funniest moments in season one were the most confrontational ones, for example, with Vicky; so for season two they brought in some new characters to antagonise him further.

 

© BBC / Baby Cow Productions

 

These were Penny (Rosie Cavaliero), a trendy-lefty friend of Magz whose middle-class Guardian-esque virtue signalling gets on Tommy’s wick; and Jonathon (Darren Boyd), an executive at the Carphone Warehouse and Tommy’s neighbour.  Jonathon’s gormless attempts to ingratiate himself (“Hey, Tommy… I was wondering if you saw that Motley Crue documentary on VH1 last night?”) are usually a prelude to his conveying a complaint from the local Residents’ Association about him mis-parking his yellow Mustang.  Jonathon’s wife Bethany (Catherine Kanter) is a member of the association and, in one episode, Tommy confronts them and accuses them of being “small-minded little Englanders who are worried about illegal immigrant stealing your James Blunt CDs.”  Bethany shoots back, “What’s wrong with James Blunt?”

 

Another second-season episode sees Tommy finally taking on the establishment, the system, The Man.  Inevitably, though, the situation is less dramatic than he believes – he has to defend himself in court after being caught on a platform at Stevenage railway station without a ticket.  (He makes life hard for himself by summoning Keanu Reeves as a witness for the defence.  Keanu reacts to being in the courtroom with a discombobulated, “Why’s everything so woody…?  Why’s everyone speaking like it’s the olden days?”)  When the judge dismisses the case, Tommy gives a triumphant speech to a couple of bemused local journalists: “We have smashed the system.  With this victory, the British rail network’s fare policy lies in tatters…  And we send a message out to all who would seek to oppress the weak and the powerless: you are arseholes and just pack it in, basically.”

 

© BBC / Baby Cow Productions

 

One nice thing about Saxondale is its depiction of Tommy and Magz’s relationship.  They might be middle-aged and a little out-of-shape, but they still have a great passion for one another, physical as well as emotional.  “That sex last night was fantastic,” marvels Tommy at one point.  “I went off like Krakatoa.”  However, their amour occasionally leads to embarrassment – for instance, when Tommy forgets to remove Magz’s make-up following a kinky sex game and comes down to eat breakfast in front of a perplexed Raymond; or when Vicky accidentally gets her brightly-coloured claws on a homemade porn video showing Tommy being spanked with a table-tennis paddle.

 

It’s been over a decade since the final episode of Saxondale was aired and I suppose the chances of it ever returning are nil, seeing as many of the cast have gone on to bigger things.  Ruth Jones has enjoyed great success as the joint writer and star (with James Corden) of Gavin and Stacey (2007-2010), Morwenna Banks is now known internationally as the voice of the mother in Peppa Pig (2004-present) and Rasmus Hardiker has become a prolific voice-actor too.  Plus Steve Coogan seems busier than ever, both with ongoing Alan Partridge projects and as a general actor, writer and producer, most notably with the Oscar-nominated Philomena (2013).  Still, Saxondale should be cherished as evidence that Coogan is fully capable of doing an affectionate, character-driven type of comedy, as well as the more grotesque, heightened type epitomised by Partridge.

 

In the Guardian, Alexis Pretridis once wrote of Partridge that “one of the reasons audiences find him funny is that they recognise at least a bit of themselves in him.”  By that reckoning, if – like me – you’re on the wrong side of 40, and feel a nostalgic pang for 20th century rock ‘n’ roll, and as a youth had a hankering for what used to be called the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, and feel adrift in a modern world of spam emails, online cat videos, automated phone systems, self-service checkouts, Twitter trolls, chuggers, selfies, Strictly Come Dancing, Simon Cowell and the Kardashian family, you should find Tommy Saxondale hilarious.  Because there’s a lot of him in you.

 

© BBC / Baby Cow Productions

 

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