"Am I bovvered? Look at my face. Am I bovvered?"
I'm mad for Catherine Tate. Standing Room Only Entertainment has released The Catherine Tate Show: Series Two, an absolutely hysterical collection of the 2005 season of one of Britain's funniest sketch comedies. Written (along with Derren Litten, Ash Ditta and other members of the cast) and performed by that amazing chameleon Catherine Tate, The Catherine Tate Show is a foul-mouthed, pointed satire that's brilliantly executed and paralyzingly funny. Successful enough in England for several of Tate's catch-phrases to have entered the popular vernacular, you won't soon forget Tate creations, such as Lauren Cooper, the ill-mannered school girl ("Are you disrespecting me, miss?"), or the couple Paul and Sam, who think the most mundane events in their lives are crushingly funny ("I almost wet myself!"), or especially, Nan Taylor, the cringingly vulgar, permanently outraged Cockney senior citizen ("What a f*cking liberty!").
Having caught bits and pieces of The Catherine Tate Show show only a couple of times on BBC America, I was curious to see how the show would hold up over the disc's almost three hour running time. Catching an isolated sketch that's funny doesn't mean that particular character is going to be successful each time out, nor are you guaranteed any of the show's other sketches will be worthwhile. No such worries, though, with The Catherine Tate Show: Series Two. Shot through with one memorable, side-splitting sketch after another, The Catherine Tate Show is required viewing for anyone who loves British TV comedies.
Viewers who may not be as familiar with common British stereotypes or conventions or popular culture may miss some of the underpinnings of Tate's humor (I watch these kinds of shows all the time, and I'm still puzzled by certain references), but her basic humor is universal enough to get the laughs across regardless of the viewer's acumen concerning British culture (after all, how many of us as kids really understood what the hell most of Monty Python was all about? It didn't stop us from laughing). For instance, in episode one, Tate plays Sandra Kemp, a red-haired woman who is taken to a shelter for "gingers" who suffer persecution from red-hair hating British society. The situation is funny on its own, because we as Americans can see it as an exaggerated spoof of other "safe house" situations for battered women or gays, but evidently, Britain actually has a real problem with "gingerism" (if you can believe it), which no doubt makes the sketch resonate more fully with British viewers.
Other references to British culture subtleties crop up in The Catherine Tate Show (like the Northern couple Janice and Ray - outraged haters of anything served to them in a restaurant that seems vaguely foreign - who are funny precisely because of their Northern provinciality), but like all good comedy, the situations have as their basis some form of universal pain, or sadness, or humiliation that make them recognizable to most people - and thus terribly funny because they're happening to somebody else. Probably the best example of this is Tate's Ally character, who is constantly inadvertently offending people when she's introduced to them at a party. For example, in one sketch, she's introduced to a woman with a cleft palate who has difficulty speaking. When the woman apologizes for "being silly" tonight (i.e.: being a little drunk), Ally thinks she's being silly by talking that way, and immediately imitates her. It's a horribly embarrassing moment, and agreeably mean-spirited in its humor, but also immediately recognizable and true (we've all seen somebody really put their foot in it at a party).
American viewers who still feel the boot of P.C. thuggery at their necks will of course be delighted by Tate's unreserved poor taste. No sacred cows are off limits, proving yet again that the funniest jokes and situations are the ones that are the most taboo, the most forbidden. Tate's penchant for vulgar, gross humor is probably best represented by her Sheila Carter character. An incredibly prim, locked-down Scottish woman, Sheila is unstinting in her condemnation of everyone else making noise...until, in the ensuing silence, she repulsively breaks wind. It's a cheap laugh (and naturally, the favorite sketch of my teenaged boys), but it's also a welcome one coming from a female comedian.
As for P.C. concerns, they go right out the window with my particular favorite here in the The Catherine Tate Show: "Nan" Taylor, the crotchety, hideously vulgar and mean-spirited Cockney senior citizen. Deceptively kind at first, she seems the model of elderly sweetness when she greets her frequent visitor and helper, grandson Jamie (Mathew Horne). But very quickly, Tate pulls the rug out from under the viewer, having Nan revert to horrible prejudices and gutter language that, coming from this old dear, are breathtakingly funny. Insisting to anybody who will listen that Jamie is gay and unemployed (he's actually straight and going to college), Nan then proceeds to rip apart anyone or anything that doesn't fall in line with her own world view. It's a tour de force performance by Tate, and clearly a favorite of Tate's and the audience (Nan gets the coveted wrap-up spot on all but one of the episodes here).
In fact, "tour de force" is an apt description for all of Tate's characterizations here. Aided by some of the most convincing make-ups jobs I've ever seen on TV (her scary Derek Faye persona - who is outraged when everyone assumes he's gay, when he so obviously is - is a remarkable prosthetic creation), Tate totally submerges herself into her various comedic roles. Where I think she excels in comparison to other women comedians is in her abilities as a straight dramatic actress, as well. As I wrote before, there's a underlying level of seriousness to many of her skits that anchors them in audience recognition (with exceptions like the delightfully silly Paul and Sam couple); with Tate's acting chops she's able to give these sketches a resonance and weight that might be missing if other performers attempted them. One of my favorite sketches in this second season of The Catherine Tate Show features Tate's Victoria Russel, a drunken bride lambasting her newly married husband in front of family and friends at the reception. As any actor will tell you, playing drunk may be the single hardest effect to achieve convincingly on camera, but Tate is dead-on believable, managing to make Victoria's truly angry tirades both hilarious and sad at the same time. As an actor, you really have to believe in a character like that to make it successful, which Tate does effortlessly.
Here are the 6, one-half hour episodes of The Catherine Tate Show: Series Two:
Program 4 Nan (The Girlfriend), Derek Faye (Travel Agent), Victoria Russel (Part One), Croupier (Confused), Annoying Waitress (Pedro), Kate and Ellen (Hairdresser), Croupier (Too Much Noise), Victoria Russel (Part Two), Sheila Carter (Confessional), Lauren (Tattoos), Croupier (Off the Table), Irene and Vern (Gorbachev), Victoria Russel (Part Three), Kate and Ellen (Theater), Victoria Russel (Part Four).
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.