The last few years have been a mixed bag in terms of quality sitcoms. It’s a genre that’s received a lot of flak and the phrase ‘they really don’t make ‘em like they used to’ has been bandied about. However, for every ten flops like My Family, The Life of Riley and most recently the diabolical Big Top there is the occasional gem such as Gavin and Stacey.
Lead Balloon is another such gem. Co-written by and starring hugely popular comedian Jack Dee it contains some exceptionally smart lines, a selection of quirky characters and tongue-in-cheek storylines. Best of all, in my opinion, it does not contain the heinous canned laughter that accompanies so many naff jokes in naff comedies. With all this going for it Lead Balloon should have been a sure-fire hit and yet despite an excellent run the BBC announced that this latest fourth series would be the last, as the show remained low-profile and plenty of people had never even heard of it. So why is this?
Jack Dee himself, says he wants to take a break from writing it to concentrate on his stand-up. Fair enough. He is undoubtedly a busy man but since there have been whisperings about Lead Balloon being axed for some time now this seems more like an excuse than anything else.
While most reviews have been very positive, a handful of critics have accused the show of being too formulaic. I’d like to know exactly what they mean by this. Certainly the family set-up is not original, but it is realistic and is naturally going to be used in the majority of comedies. Lead Balloon actively avoids the stereotypical stroppy, smart-arsed teenager and the bumbling, down-trodden parents. Indeed, failed comedian and father, Rick, (Dee) despite an admittedly impressive string of bad decisions is evidently an intelligent man and has a lot of the smartest lines, delivered with Dee’s trademark deadpan expression.
His teenage daughter, Sam, and her boyfriend, Ben, on the other hand display a smilingly-stoned stupidity most of the time, amiably telling stories of their infamous (but never seen on screen) friend Spikey who is now in jail, and coming out with lines such as ‘so is this live?’ when Rick shows them a recording of him presenting the Bargain Channel. Rick’s open-mouthed incredulity is met with ‘only, you just told viewers to phone in now’.
Sure you know pretty much what you’re going to get with the different characters, but you are also safe in the knowledge it’s going to be amusing. Rick’s morose eastern-European housekeeper, Magda (whose sister Ageta ‘has one leg shorter than the other- has to wear special shoe’) is perhaps my favourite character, and has me laughing before she even opens her mouth. Whenever she is in a scene with Rick, you can expect a hilarious misunderstanding, often dissolving into an argument.
Equally when Rick’s goody goody neighbour appears on his doorstop you just know it’s going to end badly. The main characters are all well-defined and usually get at least two scenes each per episode, with Rick moving between them.
Ok, so perhaps this could be described as ‘formulaic’ in some ways but as it’s clearly a winning formula, then what’s wrong with that? Why has Lead Balloon not achieved Gavin and Stacey status?
I believe the answer lies with the BBC itself, though quite why I’m not sure. First off, advertising has been practically non-existent. I do recall a handful of short trailers before the series began, flagging up its return but not giving a lot of information for anyone who was not already familiar with the show. Once the series had started the trailers stopped. I remember far more trailers for comedies like Gavin and Stacey and even the ill-fated Big Top. Whatever the reason, Lead Balloon has been neglected by the BBC.
Perhaps they believed that Dee had a big enough fan base that they didn’t need to attract viewers with trailers. True he has a ready audience, but how are they supposed to know about the programme if they are not told?
This neglect shows up in other areas too. Why, for example was Lead Balloon never shown on BBC1? It started on BBC4 and it was then moved to BBC2 where it has stayed. Although there are some exceptions to the rule, Top Gear and Mock the Week amongst them, BBC2 is generally regarded as the less popular channel showing the less popular programmes. Virtually all Lead Balloon’s comedy counterparts aired on BBC1, as do most of Jack Dee’s other comedy performances. It seems only fair and logical that Lead Balloon should too, at least after it proved its worth in its first series. Gavin and Stacey began on BBC3 but after series one was quickly moved to BBC1 in a primetime slot where it received far more attention.
Don’t even get me started on the 10pm slot! Why could it not have been shown a little earlier and therefore draw in some of Jack Dee’s younger and older fans? Yes the humour is clever and at times subtle, but it’s not hard to understand. Nor are the jokes dirty. In fact Lead Balloon is very clean, not having to rely on bad language or smutty innuendo to be funny, making it the ideal family comedy. I feel certain an 8pm or 9pm slot on BBC1 would have been far more appropriate, helping it to become more visible and attract more viewers.
But now the final series is over and it’s a sad day for modern sitcoms. Lead Balloon has gone down, passed on, is no more, ceased to be, expired and gone to meet its maker…it’s true, they really don’t make ‘em like they used to.