Up the Women review – Episode One – BBC Four

Up the Women BBCUp the Women is pretty bad. I don’t want to say that, because I like Jessica Hynes, and Rebecca Front is great, but the programme is really old-fashioned, most of the jokes are poor, and the characters are 2D and cartoonish.

It’s disappointing to see Hynes write something like this, having come to prominence as a co-writer on the highly original and outstanding Spaced. This comedy though feels very old. It has an interesting premise, set in 1910 and following a group of women involved in the suffrage movement, but if the first episode is to judge, nothing particularly interesting is done with that setting.

Episode one introduced the protagonist Margaret and her knitting circle, populated by an ugly woman – the butt of many jokes – a young pregnant woman, an old sarcastic grandmother, and her bossy and controlling daughter. In this first episode, Margaret revealed to her friends that she was joining the suffrage movement, and won all but one of them over to her cause after a brief struggle.

There are a number of jokes that rely entirely on the fact that the characters are sayin things we in the present day can see as stupid: ‘Well that’s never going to catch on,’ someone says about a lightbulb. ‘That’s one job we’ll never have to do again,’ another says having screwed the lightbulb in. It’s very weak, and I suspect the show will be very reliant on these types of jokes in future episodes too.

Up the Women is part of a trend in TV comedy right now for very old fashioned sitcoms. The Wright Way is one of the most recent examples, as is ITV’s Vicious, which shares a number of similarities with this show: the studio audience, most of the action taking place in one room, an elderly sardonic wit, a young man suffering the flirtations of an old woman. These are the type of things found in old 1970s comedies. And I like some of those comedies, but I see no need to bring back the worst elements from them. I also can’t see the value in a resurgence of these broad sitcoms with groaning one-liners and laugh tracks (or overly-enthusiastic audiences).

The acting is good though. Front and Hynes are both outstanding comic actresses (though Front is a little cartoonish here), and Emma Pearson and Judy Parfitt work well alongside them. Also in the episode is Ryan Sampson, who was great as Grumio in Plebs, and who is equally as impressive here. I’ve not seem Sampson in much, but he looks like he might be a really good comic actor.

Enjoyable acting can’t make up for the poor writing though. It just isn’t very funny. There’s a joke at one point where a woman has unknowingly drawn some flowers to look like dicks. If you are writing a sitcom, and you find yourself making this awful, incredibly old joke, then you need to go back to the drawing board. The Wright Way was rightly pilloried for making these types of jokes (and, in fact, this exact joke); Up the Woman shouldn’t be treated any gentler just because we all like Jessica Hynes and hate Ben Elton.

There are only three episodes of Up the Women for some reason. I don’t know if it’s just a contained little film Hynes wanted to make for the 100 year anniversary of Emily Davison’s death, or if the BBC are being stingy and waiting to see how series one does before commission more. I have only seen one episode, so I’m not going to dismiss the show entirely, but I didn’t see much to give me hope that the rest of the short series will be any better.

Choice lines:

  • ‘Virginity, abstinence and moderation,’ are the names of three of Eva’s many children.
  • ‘Shall we count down?’ ‘100, 99, 98…’
  • ‘My husband votes for who I tell him to vote for; what could be a better system than that?’
  • ‘I know it’s hard to accept that you’ve read all those books for nothing, but you have.’
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4 thoughts on “Up the Women review – Episode One – BBC Four

  1. You say there is trend towards bringing back old situation comedy. Where? I’ve written three totally different and original series which would be considered ‘old fashioned’ (I’m proud to say!), but I can’t get a look in!!

    • The Wright Way and Vicious are both really old-fashioned, especially the former, with its reliance on innuendo. Private Eye‘s TV reviewer argued that The Job Lot is the same; another office comedy similar to those from the 1970s, pointing out that it has ‘various sitcom stereotypes – including uptight spinster, time-server and jack-the-lad.’

      In my review of The Wright Way, I argued that Miranda and Mrs Brown’s Boys helped start this trend. Both those shows are very reminiscent of old, 1970’s type sitcoms (Miranda Hart is apparently inspired by Morecambe and Wise-type humour, for instance).

      I’m not completely against this type of comedy – I like some of these older shows, like Porridge , Steptoe and Son and Dad’s Army – I just think we are bringing back the worst elements right now, and I don’t think there’s much worth in a resurgence of this safe, populist humour.

      Good luck with your scripts, I hope you get your chance.

      • I am so pleased that the traditional studio-based audience sitcom is having a comeback! Finally some comedy shows with actual jokes in them. Modern trendy types have for years being claiming comedy is now all about single-camera mockumentary style sitcoms, but always forget to mention that these shows don’t use a studio audience because the writers actually forgot to put any jokes in.

  2. Up the women, is the best, funniest, comedy to hit our screens for many years. This comedy is absolute genius and it may be far too clever for … some…to appreciate.

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