Sky One’s new sitcom The Cafe comes from the pens of Ralf Little and Michelle Terry – the former made his name playing dopy younger brother Antony on The Royle Family, and starring in Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps; the latter experienced mainly in stage work, including spells with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
The pair are mentored by Craig Cash, best known for playing Caroline Aherne’s boyfriend Dave on The Royle Family – which I hadn’t realised he also co-wrote with Aherne – and Early Doors, which he co-wrote and appeared in.
The Royle Family and Early Doors share a downbeat, realist tone. There’s a sense that runs through both shows of understated realism, that everything that’s seen really could happen.
Along with The Office and Smoking Room, these are probably the best Brit sitcoms of that type in the last decade. (Possibly including Peep Show as well, the doubt being about style rather than quality.)
So, in short, the creators should know what they’re doing with this style of comedy – the phrase ‘from the makers of’ is often used to promote a new programme or film, given that The Cafe aims for the same style as it’s predecessors, here it’s pretty much as accurate as it can be.
Like The Royle Family and Early Doors, The Cafe is centred around one place, with most of the action taking place in Cyril’s, a cafe on the end of the beach at Weston-Super-Mare.
The first episode opens with three generations of women in the cafe – Sarah (Michelle Terry) staring out of the window down the beach, her mother Carol, the cafe owner going over the books, and Nan knitting.
There’s talk about Sarah’s love life – including her ex James Martin (‘I liked him on Saturday Kitchen’). Carol inquires why she’s single, telling her that it’s okay to be a lesbian if she wants, and tries to set her up with a friend’s daughter, against Sarah’s protests.
The first two episodes are filled with similarly amusing bits and characters – Chloe the hairdresser offering a client two and a half biscuits rather than one, because ‘by the time they reach sixty, the average human being has lost half their tastebuds’, and Kieran the living statue who seems moodier than can be possible when dressed as the Tin Man.
It’s all colourful but believable – the kind of discussions that could happen in real life amongst family, friends or at in a pub (or cafe!), just more consistently funny than they would likely be.
There’s close to a dozen characters appear over the first two episodes, but, with the exceptions of one or two customers and the postman, who have only a line or two, all feel well-drawn and detailed.
Even John, the closest the show has to a villain in the first two episodes, is well written and acted as a fomer local turned Olympic organiser who’s returned to visit his sick mum. He’s a smooth operator who resents coming back to ‘literally the arse end of nowhere’, but his discomfort around his mother and clear feelings of being torn make him sympathetic rather than being a one-note bad guy.
There aren’t many big laughs in the show, perhaps only two or three times in the first two episodes I laughed out loud, but a lot of smaller, amusing moments, more or less every other line.
They’re mostly character based, observational stuff, like an extended discussion over whether it’s best to put jam or cream on the scone first, and elderly Jack Dobson’s attention being drawn by a breast-feeding mother, then protesting when he thinks he’s been spotted.
There’s plenty of emotion as well, in Sarah’s career and romantic disappointments, John’s feeling of being torn between his career and his mother, and Carol’s financial worries, but it’s all nicely underplayed.
The show could do with a really big comic character, a Jim Royle, David Brent or even a Gareth Keenan, but, as it is, it’s pretty much perfect comfort food. There’s little that could be classed as comedic genius in terms of scenes that stand out beyond their context (the jelly stapler in The Office, Patrick Stewart and Liam Neeson’s appearances on Extras and Life’s Too Short), but the first two episodes of The Cafe is full of little moments that should make the viewer smile.
In fact, in terms of observing the small moments of life and drawing humor and pathos from them, The Cafe is not just a worthy inheritor to The Royle Family and Early Doors, but more of a natural heir to The Office than Gervais’ current series.
Perfect Comfort food. Consistently amusing, and well observed.
The Cafe is avalable on Sky Catch up, episode 3 is on Sky at 9pm Wednesday 30th.