Monday, November 27, 2017

Ranking the Murder Most Horrid mortality tales

I never watched The Vicar of Dibley, I preferred the darker side of Dawn French's '90s output. Except when it was rubbish.

Here are some unhelpfully brief thoughts illustrated by below-par VHS-to-MP4 screencaps.

Writer key:

Ian Hislop & Nick Newman (5)
Steven Moffat (3)
Jon Canter (3)
Terry Kyan & Paul Smith (2)
Paul Smith (2)
James Hendrie (2)
One-off sods

24. The Girl from Ipanema

Unsurprisingly after the strong open, a weaker story is shunted to episode two where it won't do as much damage. A bit more surprising is the casual racism of Dawn French Latinning up to play a Brazilian maid/all-purpose slave, and not all the gags at the expense of Third World poverty are excused by coming out of the mouths of terrible snobs. Come on, Alternative Comedy, you're better than that!

Since it wasn't all that funny, I was hoping I might at least enjoy the story, but it takes ages to get to the mandatory murder and the unlikely coincidence that the evil businessman's cholera-spewing mine just happens to be next to the village where his new maid came from was too much to swallow. I know it's not serious drama, but they're making the effort with the sets after all.
"What is this hang-up people have about cholera?" - Maurice Howling

23. Smashing Bird

I've never liked gangster stories, but this is the 90s, so it was inevitable. Dawn's character regrets getting involved with the mob - there's a surprise - and has to prove her capabilities on behalf of womankind. But she's not as stupid as they take her for, despite being a bird.
"Birds can't drive, but birds can kill" - Clancy Black

22. He Died a Death

Ian Hislop and thingy's second offering is much more mediocre, and setting it in the back-stabbing world of low-key show-business means we have to sit through a great deal of intentionally bad theatrics before getting to the anticipated murder. Whew, there it is.
"Is there no way out of this hell? Not even a little cat flap?" - Judy Talent

21. Dinner at Tiffany's

The series doesn't exactly go out on a high note, with the least engaging story for a while dealing with teachers' strikes and crafty dinnerladies. There's at least plenty of slaughter, if not laughter, and Dawn French gets off with a lady, which might have been pretty exciting in 1999.
"Felicity, don't do that with your twelve-colour biro!" - Sheila

20. We All Hate Granny

A dangerously absent-minded Granny moves in with her inheritance-chasing daughter and hostile granddaughters. I felt a bit sorry for the old dear, but it all turned out alright in the end. It's not the most convincing old age make-up, but when is it ever?
"I just want you to know, I'm very anti this whole murder idea" - Tom

19. A Severe Case of Death

A period piece this time, in which Dawn plays the frustrated housekeeper to a country physician, who secretly educates herself in human anatomy on the side. It's not going where you think it is, unless you expected Dawn to cross-dress and go overboard on the historic gender stereotype gags.
"I stripped him naked, pushed a large carrot up his fundament and warned him that next time it would be a jacket potato" - Squire Thorpe

18. A Determined Woman

Proving that there are no rules to this anthology, beyond the requirements that each story has Dawn French and a murder in it, this is a time travel episode. Quite ambitious for an early 90s sitcom (who do they think they are, Red Dwarf?), but as someone who's arguably watched too much time travel TV, I found it a bit lacking on that front. Even dealing with one minor jaunt, there are still plot holes, and the editing was confusing too. I don't know how they expected casual viewers to know what they were looking at.

On the positive side, I won't have been alone in appreciating the reversal of stock gender roles as Dawn's mad scientist tinkers in the cellar while long-suffering Jim Broadbent takes care of the housework as best he can, without the appliances his ungrateful wife keeps cannibalising for her experiments. I just realised the title's a pun on determinism too, so it gets an extra point.
"When are you ever going to get it into your thick skull that I am dealing with transfinite dimensional variables here?" - Rita Proops

17. Girl Friday

They don't bother subverting gender stereotypes this time. Dawn French plays a devoted PA who's infatuated with her boss and dismayed when his infidelities aren't targeted in her direction. But he'll quickly learn to bloody appreciate her when he accidentally murders his wife and needs someone to help him sort out this mess.
"Tell me I don't look a day over 25 and I'll sit on your knob all night" - Sally Fairfax

16. Confess

Dawn French is a copper again, this time a bit more capable, even if she has been watching too many "psychologicals." It's fun seeing her up against Roger Lloyd Pack, but since I haven't watched The Vicar of Dibley, it didn't feel like a reunion. She was just talking to Trigger.

The twist will only be surprising if you've never watched anything ever.
"You've got a damp feeling deep in the crack of your bottom. We all get that, it's called the trickle of truth" - Sgt. Hodge

15. The Body Politic

Here's one from Anthony "Crime Traveller" Horowitz, featuring Dawn as the wife of Hugh Laurie's prospective Prime Minister. When they find three dead bodies under the kitchen floorboards on the eve of a game-changing election, high-jinks with bin bags ensue.

As much as I've been surprised at my squeamishness about this series in general, those corpses are disposed of far too quickly for full comedic effect.
"It will not 'be alright,' it's not going to be alright, it's not going to be alright at all!" - Jerry Bryce

14. A Life or Death Operation

Dawn plays a surgeon who loses a patient due to gross negligence. When his wife seeks justice, and seems to have the paperwork to back her up, Dawn deals with the threat less ambiguously. Then - you'll never guess - she's only put in charge of saving her life!

I think they expected us to feel bad for Dawn at the end, which is a bit weird after all she's done. What kind of monsters do they think they've turned us into?
"I am not an evil person, I just got completely carried away" - Kate Marshall

13. Whoopi Stone

Dawn's a cop again, this time with a passion for amateur dramatics that makes her the ideal candidate to go undercover as an American. Shame about the lack of talent and the need to substitute swear words with toy frog squeaks, but it doesn't go too badly. Alright, it goes terribly, but it's nothing an improv murder won't fix.
"They're muscling in on the London drug scene. I mean, that's not right, is it? Taking jobs from decent English gangsters" - Neil Brown

12. Dying Live

Another unflinchingly cruel one from Steven Moffat. Last time it was assassins, this time the live TV execution of a revolutionary in fictional Latin America, with bad accents all round. They just need an executioner, and a case of mistaken identity means Dawn French's holidaying abattoir worker finds herself in a new job. She wasn't even good at the old one.
"I try to keep my finger on the pulse, and I get very upset whenever I find one" - Mr. Franklin

11. Mangez Merveillac

They made it 11 episodes before making gluttony jokes, that's commendable restraint.

Dawn's travel critic seeks out the last unspoiled sanctuary of traditional France for her new book, and when she doesn't find it, she makes her deadline and kickstarts the local tourism industry with a little bit of artistic license. Those porky pies are going to come back to bite her. Litera- oh, I just spoiled it.
"Okay, they may not wash. Okay, they may not bother to learn our language. But oh boy, can they stuff a mushroom" - Verity Hodge

10. Mrs. Hat and Mrs. Red

Dawn French takes on double duty as a kind-hearted but love-starved woman and her rich bitch doppelgänger. One of them won't make it to the credits.

The pair are separated for most of the episode as Mrs. Red conveniently decides to leave her family for good, just as Mrs. Hat sneaks into her house, promptly filling in and enjoying an unearned rags-to-riches life. But they're back together by the end, and after teasing with handy hats and headscarves, Dawn finally faces off against a worthy actress when they bring out the split screen.

Robert "Kryten" Llewelyn has one line as a taxi driver, which was nice to see. Was broccoli considered rich people food in 1991?
"Doppelgängers: the idea that out there is a double for each of us. And if there is, how come the Germans have got a word for it and we haven't?" - Narrator

9. Overkill

The first of three episodes written by Steven Moffat is an absolute bloodbath that's a bit dirty too. Since he was mainly known for kids' TV at that point, he seems to be over-compensating.

I preferred the quiet misery of Dawn's inept attempt to hang herself than her reluctant turn as an accidentally massively efficient assassin. It becomes clear before too long that no one's going to survive this. Clue's in the title, really.
"Dear mum, as you will know by now, I am dead. How are you?" - Tina Mellish

8. Going Solo

Another mildly experimental episode that doesn't fully convince, it's more fun seeing Sarah Lancashire suffer Dawn's relentless inanity on their round-the-world yachting trip than learning their secret histories in covert flashbacks.

The weather artistically chooses to mirror the deteriorating relationship of the ill-matched pair, but will it finish them off? That would hardly count as a murder, would it?
"What about a bilge pump then?" - Tracey Phillips

7. Elvis, Jesus and Zack

I like how the final batch of episodes plays around with the format a bit more. This one even breaks one of the core tenets, and it's not by excluding Dawn French.

There are slim pickings for Dawn's obituaries department at Broadcast One (nice camouflage), which is under threat unless they come up with a fabulous famous fatality. Even if that means making it happen. Thus we embark on an exploration of how those celebrity death conspiracy theories might work, and why they clearly wouldn't.

Steven Moffat's third script for the series is a lighter shade of black than his previous ones, but still full of barbs at the incompetence of television executives and the contemptuous viewing public. He ain't seen nothing yet.
"Death is the difference between a legend and all the other prats" - Jill Tanner

6. Frozen

It's 1946 and rationing is hitting the residents of Skinton hard. So just how is Dawn French maintaining her figure?

Regular viewers' warped minds will speculate a smorgasbord of unpleasantness, so it's fun that expectations are subverted and they aren't vile murderers after all. For a bit.

These villagers are more prone to double entendres than the staff at Grace Brothers. It's silly, but I liked it.
"I expect it's been a very long time since you've tasted a fudge triangle" - Lily Wood-Newton

5. The Case of the Missing

Ian Hislop and someone less famous wrote this tale of corruption and intrigue set in a regional town under the unsubtle grip of Freemasonry. Dawn French's lowly traffic controller is promoted beyond reason to head an investigation into a suspicious death, in the hopes that her lack of qualifications, experience and male genitals will mean the ritual murder will remain unsolved. But they didn't count on her irrepressible diligence! Turns out she is a bit thick though.

There are lots of familiar faces and a wealth of amusing background gags that feel like they're going above and beyond the requirements of a throwaway 30-minute comedy episode. It's not Police Squad!, but it's solid.
"It's high time that someone of your outstanding abilities was doing something more challenging than directing traffic. Like a high-profile, top-level CID investigation" - Chief Inspector

4. Lady Luck

A welcome shift to a more realist tone with this one, which makes a nice short film. It's one of the few that actually made me care about the characters and regret the contractual obligation of someone ending up dead by the end. I was already enjoying Dawn as an unusually accommodating hostage before the great reveal that makes sense of her behaviour.
"Eat shit, you mothers!" - Denise Cunningham

3. Dead on Time

This is one of the most memorable and atypical approaches to the format, swerving into full-on suburban fantasy as Dawn plays a modernised, feminised Grim Reaper, driving around in a Mini with an inexplicable hedge strimmer in lieu of an outmoded scythe and addressing the audience who she promises to meet very soon.

Not surprisingly, it's among the episodes I definitely recall from my youth. It's not like there haven't been other comedy Deaths, but this is one of the most entertaining.
"What do you mean 'tacky?' I've just bought you dinner at Pizza Hut" - Anthony Smedley

2. Murder at Tea Time

Dawn French plays a passive-aggressive has-been Write Away (Blue Peter) presenter who gets creative revenge on her younger and more popular co-star by writing fraudulent letters to the show, requesting to see Colin take part in increasingly unwise activities. It's relentlessly cruel, but she's such a loveable villain, and Colin so genuinely cocky and quite annoying, that I would have happily watched a full 30 minutes of his undeserved suffering.

But even more amusing is the secondary story of the programme's number one fan, whose mother is determined to see her son achieve the gold medal her late Olympic speed-walking husband never managed. At least I think that's what was going on.
"Everybody's afraid of something, so it would be unkind and wrong to label Colin an utter coward" - Bunty Breslow

1. Confessions of a Murderer

Narrowly my favourite episode, Hislop and Newman's wittiest script is filled with distinctive characters, from Dawn's pathological crime confessor to the friendly cop / inept upstart inspector double-act and a twist ending that manages to go full Cluedo.

It's the first time I've noticed the direction too, which is something you can't exactly avoid when you're dealing with Edgar Wright. With its manic cuts and visual gags doubling the laugh quotient, he's basically doing Spaced.
"I think I'll be the judge of which exact automobile components are proving metaphorically unreliable, Sergeant" - Inspector Dawson

Best writer?

Responsible for 3 of my top 5 episodes, the prolific Hislop & Newman are clearly my favourites, even if one weak link drags their average misleadingly below the one-shots from Jez Alborough & Graham Alborough ('Murder at Tea Time') and Nick Vivian ('Frozen'). It's almost like I don't know how to calculate meaningful statistics.

Best series?

I make it 4>3>1>2, if that means anything.

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