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TV review: Chickens; Big School

Simon Bird, Joe Thomas and Jonny Sweet in Sky1's Chickens. Photo: Colin Hutton for Sky1 HD

Is everyone who took part in the First World War dead? Good, let’s desecrate their sufferings and sacrifices with a rubbish sitcom.

I was really looking forward to Chickens, Sky1’s take on British conscientious objectors during the Great War. It sounded a bold, brave and original concept that promised to push the world of Blackadder Goes Forth to a further level of dark, dangerous, edgy and disturbing satire.

How could it fail to do otherwise, with protagonists who would have permanently existed in the shadow of public contempt, scorn and opprobrium?

How? By draining the situation of all drama and jeopardy, and reducing it to the level of a silly-ass costume comedy, that’s how. For a show such as Chickens to work, it has to be grounded in some sort of emotional truth. But this has none. It just staggers from one contrived and supposedly surreal set-up to the next, completely missing the point that the First World War was itself a massive and bloody absurdity.

Chickens is written by its three stars – Simon Bird, Joe Thomas and Jonny Sweet – who therefore have nobody to blame but themselves for the paper-thin characters they’re obliged to inhabit. Flat feet, moral repugnance and total imbecility preclude the trio from serving king and country, and consequently they are the only men in a village of women. Imagine a kind of Carry On Conshie, but without the film series’ wit.

The show is shot through with anachronisms, not least its jazz-era theme tune, which aspire to be postmodern but actually betray a slovenly unwillingness genuinely to explore the period chosen as its setting.

There is also an awful lot of swearing, which invariably signals a paucity of decent jokes. Have I mentioned that Chickens isn’t particularly funny, either?

Big School is unapologetically old school in its comic approach – it is currently BBC Comedy’s holy grail to find a popular, mainstream and peak-time sitcom – but I was pleasantly surprised by how entertaining and funny it was.

Nobody is ever going to die of laughter while watching Big School, but creating characters an audience wants to spend half an hour with is the bedrock of all sitcoms, and these are well drawn, good fun and beautifully played by an illustrious cast that resolutely resists the temptation to do ‘funny acting’.

David Walliams – who shares a writing credit with the self-styled Dawson Brothers, who were presumably leaders of an outlaw gang before turning to comedy – stars as chemistry teacher Mr Church, who harbours unrequited feelings for french teacher Miss Postern, played by Catherine Tate.

Walliams is sweet and funny, but pitches Church at the asexual end of camp, which effectively prevents any romantic chemistry developing between the couple and drives one of the show’s major themes up a particularly blind alley.

It is also a shame that the kids at the school hardly get a look-in on the action – an oversight that effectively doomed school-set sitcom Chalk back in the 1990s – as it is common knowledge among teachers that the students are the funniest, silliest and most unpredictable part of any school.

Chickens, Sky1, Thursday, August 22, 9.30pm
Big School, BBC1, Friday, August 23, 9pm

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