Saturday 22 May 2021

Not With a Bang

Post-apocalyptic narratives have a tendency to be indebted to a catastrophic event. Popular choices range from deadly pandemics through to nuclear attacks and the emergence of zombie killers. These flashpoints need to be dramatic to leave humanity hanging on by a thread and create the drama required to hook in the viewers. It’s not a dynamic which immediately lends itself to comedy, but this doesn’t mean it should be off-limits. Comedy is capable of taking on each and every genre of storytelling and that’s why it’s such a versatile form. And maybe it can be achieved Not With a Bang but with a very British take on the genre.

Scientists have managed to isolate the factor behind the aging process in humans and can now synthesise the chemical responsible. Judith Hann (playing herself) is showcasing the potential of this highly volatile chemical on an edition of The World Tomorrow. But warns that no one has, as of yet, figured out how to stabilise it. And then she knocks a bottle of it off a table. As it escapes into the atmosphere it vaporises everyone on the face of the planet. At least, it vaporises almost everyone. For, over in the village of Merebridge, there are two survivors desperately reaching out for help.

Brian (Ronald Pickup) – head of History at the local school – survived the apocalypse as he was hermetically sealed in a booth as he answered questions, on the works of Trollope, for The White Hart in the regional final of a pub quiz league. His companion, for the last 12 months since society disappeared, is Colin (Stephen Rea). Previously a signwriter, with no idea who Trollope is, Colin was taking part in a sponsored dive for his beloved Barrow rugby league club when Judith Hann ended life as he knew it. Emerging from the water, Colin found that everyone was gone. And now he’s stuck with Brian.

For the last year, aside from eating fish almost every evening, Brian and Colin have hoped to find fellow survivors. But, despite frequent broadcasts over a rather pitiful taxi radio, they’ve drawn radio silence and nothing more. Thankfully, they aren’t the only survivors. Graham (Mike Grady) and Janet Wilkins (Josie Lawrence) were potholing in the Mendips and avoided the threat of vaporisation. And their jaunt around the country looking for survivors has led them to Merebridge. Despite them accidentally running their car into him, Brian is overjoyed as loft conversion expert Graham and housewife Janet represent the future of a new society. The only problem is that Graham’s coming up short in the one department required for repopulation.

Mike Walling and Tony Millan had previously collaborated on black comedy A Small Problem and Not with a Bang - aired in 1990 - represented their next full-scale venture together. The series was an LWT production – their logo emblazoned cameras are visible in the first episode – with the episodes making their home in the Saturday 10pm slot. Robin Carr, who had previous production credits for Allo, Allo, Hi-de-Hi and The Two of Us, came on board as the director for all seven episodes. There was no repeat transmission for Not with a Bang, but, curiously, LWT decided to commission a commercial release. This was not, however, of the actual series. Instead a 7” vinyl of the theme tune by Rod Argent and Peter Van Hooke was released and backed with The Piglet Files theme tune.

The gentle, rolling beauty of Argent and Van Hooke’s theme tune is far removed from the traditional savagery and rawness of post-apocalyptic fiction. And this is a genre which British television has excelled in over the decades. The War Game, Survivors, The Day of the Triffids and Threads have all demonstrated a sublime grasp of the horrors and drama awaiting within. But comedies set within these environments have been in short supply. So it’s a case of kudos to Walling and Millan for taking on this challenge. And their approach is one which centres Not with a Bang in the sanctity of a cosy British village rather than the traditional crumbling, plague filled cities usually seen on screen.

A well-balanced combination of conventional philosophy, from the cultured lectures of Brian, and a blunter, simpler homespun brand of logic from Colin, Not with a Bang thrives upon the odd couple dynamic. Sure, Graham and Janet probably err towards Brian’s sensibilities, but the main tensions come from Brian and Colin’s different opinions on their predicament. Brian’s pomposity allows him to elevate himself to an almost divine-like position as one of the “chosen ones” charged with constructing a better take on society. Colin meanwhile is mostly just irked that his old drinking partner Dave Perry is no longer around to help him sink pints and chat up women.

Brian and Colin’s lengthy and numerous two-handers in The Red Lion and during their hillside vigils make room for both insight into the human condition and the ease with which pontification can be punctured for comedic effect. A little too much time is invested in these sections and the end ‘summing up’ sections do become formulaic, but this is countered by the comedic strength which Graham and Janet bring. Perhaps a partial inspiration for the series’ title, The Wilkins’ efforts to produce offspring have been not been going with a bang. Janet’s biological urge to bear children, and her need to repopulate the world, drives her to pursuing Brian’s help in achieving this objective and delivers the series’ biggest laughs.

Not With a Bang comes up rather short when it comes to concrete plots, in fact, they too appear to have been wiped off the face of the planet. Much of the action is focused on two-handers between the two camps with the only significant plot centred around Brian transforming The Red Lion into an arts centre. Which he achieves with few obstacles. Nonetheless, the pottering-around-Merebridge is engaging thanks to the cast’s superb performances. Ronald Pickup and Stephen Rea deliver highly nuanced takes on post-apocalyptic versions of Foggy Dewhurst and Compo Simmonite. Keeping the Last of the Summer Wine connection going is the steady comedic hand of Mike Grady and Josie Lawrence, as glorious as ever, exudes a joyfully twee confidence as the politely unhinged Janet.

With more drive and adventure to the episodes, Not With a Bang could have made a strong contender for post-apocalyptic comedy poster boy. Yes, the post-apocalyptic nature is only really evident from the lack of survivors and, after a year of dwindling supplies and no means of electricity, everyone is a little too neat and tidy, but it taps into the comedic alchemy of trapping people together. The comedy on offer is an engaging strain which straddles the gap between broad and cosy, so episodes should easily gift you a smile as they unfold. It may not be a programme which is likely to see the light of day again, but Not With a Bang is worth seeking out.

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