The Old Guys

The Old Guys, starring Clive Swift, Roger Lloyd Pack, Jane Asher and Katherine Parkinson

BBC One’s latest Saturday night comedy offering is a far cry from the tears of laughter you get from watching an episode of Outnumbered – but The Old Guys has plenty of reasons to tune in for a few laughs.

A top cast has been assembled for this show, which sees two divorced older men called Roy (Clive Swift – Keeping Up Appearances) and Tom (Roger Lloyd Pack – Only Fools and Horses) vying for the affections of their very attractive neighbour Sally, played by Jane Asher.

Produced by BBC Scotland, The Old Guys is written by the creators of Peep Show, Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, as well as being major contributors to Mitchell and Webb’s sketch shows.

This link to younger, more vibrant comedy than The Old Guys is maintained in the BBC One show by the presence of the hilarious and gorgeous Katherine Parkinson (The IT Crowd) as Tom’s neurotic daughter Amber.

The various setups and situations that the characters – particularly Amber – get into are well executed throughout the series, and as with all sitcom the comedy is in the reaction, rather than the situation.  BBC sitcom veterans Swift and Lloyd Pack give good value, while Ms Asher is a bit of a revelation, having steered away from comedy throughout most of her career.

It’s Parkinson however who gives The Old Guys the required comedy viagra, stealing every scene in which she appears as Amber, a daffy, self-obsessed man-eater.

On its current showing, The Old Guys should get a second run – it’s not classic comedy by any means, but it certainly improves on After You’ve Gone and the risible Life of Riley and brings some of the best comedy writing talent in the UK to a mainstream audience.

There has been a lot of talk about the decline of the British sitcom, specifically the traditional, studio-based kind with a live audience. And quite rightly, when you consider some of the most recent offerings in this genre – the abysmal Life of Riley, the gag-led Not Going Out, the never-should-have-been-commissioned-in-the-first-place Green Green Grass, and of course the constantly disappointing My Family.

The format has become associated with sub-standard production values, overly-broad humour and hammy performances.

So it was with trepidation that I approached The Old Guys, a sitcom about two men in their 60s forced to live together in suburbia after leading happy city lives, which is currently halfway through its first series on, yes, BBC1. 

I contemplated avoiding it completely, not wanting to see national treasures Roger Lloyd-Pack and Clive Swift (who made their names with classic sitcoms Only Fools and Horses and Keeping Up Appearances respectively) reduced to such things.

I am not the only one who took the plunge, as the first episode was seen by 4.95m people. And I, for one, am glad I tuned in. 

Chief among the persuasive reasons to watch was the fact that the show is created by Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, the masterminds behind Channel 4’s excellent Peep Show, and the premise is, in essence, Peep Show with seniors. Or, if you prefer, Peep Show meets One Foot in the Grave. 

The show is also written by Simon Blackwell, whose credits include BBC4’s (and later BBC2’s) wonderful satire The Thick of It, and the writing of The Old Guys is as sharp and clever as anything that would spit at the notion of a laughter track.

Tom (Lloyd-Pack) is a feckless baby-boomer still living in the 60s, while Roy (Swift) is a more traditional pensioner, forced into his situation when his wife left him.

The performances are as skilled and nuanced as we would expect from two veterans like Lloyd-Pack and Swift, and their chemistry is undeniable. They even manage to successfully play-off a rather more stunted Jane Asher (playing Tom and Roy’s neighbour Sally, a washed-up actress). Katherine Parkinson plays Tom’s ingenuous daughter, doubtless cast with a view to bringing in the younger viewer off the back of her role in Channel 4’s The IT Crowd (another excellent show that could be cited in defence of the studio sitcom).

It is warmer in tone than Peep Show, but just as anarchic in its own way. That is not to say that it avoids some of the more uncomfortable issues that would no doubt be addressed were this to have been made a naturalistic, mockumentary-style piece. Tom and Roy argue about which one of them will get Alzheimer’s first, which of their bladders is strongest, and how far they should walk each day to avoid having a heart-attack. It does occasionally fall into traditional sitcom territory (the first episode ends with Tom and Roy peeing in Sally’s sink following a competition to see who can hold it in longest), but any disappointment is usually assuaged by the more original ways in which the situations are arrived at. 

While on the surface it is just a variation on the well-worn odd couple format (but, hey, so was Peep Show) the sharp writing and skilled performances make it into something more. It could even have the makings of a classic BBC sitcom, and when’s the last time anyone said that about a BBC sitcom?


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