And they’re off! Another series of the BBC’s relentlessly gentle satire on the absurdities of the Olympic year. They’ve kept the same title sequence, the one that features footage of the Mayor of London waving a giant Olympic flag and a voiceover of the commentator celebrating Lord Coe’s gold medal race. Take that, establishment. I considered stopping berating this show for not being satirical enough, and accepting that it was just a sitcom about a group of people who just happen to work in the Olympic Deliverance Team. But firstly it’d be a little weird to write a sitcom including recognisable public figures about events that are currently taking place, and secondly it actually is a satire. At least in the sense that it mocks jargon, bureaucracy and those in power. It’s not very good at it, but this show definitely maps onto the territory marked “satire”, and I don’t think we can let it off the hook by suggesting it’s a closed comedy setup which has no connection to the real world, except for some accidental making fun of current events.
It’s all kicking off this week because the Algerian delegation have insisted that the arrangements for the multi-faith worship centre are not satisfactory, since the centre does not face Mecca. If they don’t get what they want, they’re threatening to boycott the games. It’s another excellent demonstration of this show’s baffling ambivalence. Tackling the funny side of situations which arise from the sensitivities of certain world religions is an obvious target for a satirical show, and fair play that they chose the one which gets most attention in the British press. To do otherwise would probably have courted criticism for being “too PC” or “tiptoeing tolerantly around intolerance”, though it might have been funny to see how a Buddhist boycott threat would have looked. So they decided to square up to controversy and make it about Islam. But not to make anything in particular out of it.
The French counter-threat to boycott the Olympics themselves if any special considerations are given to the Algerians is a nice touch, suggesting that their profound stance for equality might actually be stemming from a blend of Republican laïcité and post-colonial snark. Then there’s a hurried attempt to stop every other possibly-involved nation from picking sides and causing a schism one way or the other. It’s surprisingly deftly handled for Twenty Twelve, but it’s handled to no effect whatsoever. They make an issue out of Muslims taking offence at a perceived slight, and then backpedal furiously to make sure no actual issue arises. As I said, baffling. Why bother?
And if we’re talking about issues, let’s pause for a moment over the jokes about “women’s table tennis” and “men’s volleyball” in this episode. Because I’ve looked at them from several angles, and the only way I can see that those jokes work is if we assume we all agree that women’s sport is inherently ludicrous, that no-one could ever actually take it seriously, and the only possible reason for it to exist is as a sexualised spectacle for male viewers. Those seem to be the necessary preconditions of getting a laugh from those lines.
But anyway. There’s a new member of the team arriving – Fiona Healey (Morven Christie), the Head of Legacy turns up early and makes the Head of Sustainability (Amelia Bullmore) immediately uneasy. After a series of insisting that Legacy and Sustainability aren’t the same thing, she seems to have been taken seriously by “upstairs”, and she’s not keen on the dynamic, suave operator they’ve sent. Still, as Ian Fletcher points out, it’s better to have Legacy around the table than outside the tent, er, looking in at the table. This could be the games that change the way the world dries its hands, intones Bullmore’s character, trying to make Sustainability sound epoch-making. (As, in a very real sense, I suppose it might be, if science is right about a few things.)
In other interpersonal relationships, Sally (Olivia Colman) is advising him on the decoration of his new living quarters. After the cliffhanger of last series, it seems she never did get to declare how much she loved him, but they’re even closer and Ian is making noises about how much he depends upon her. Little oases of acting, these scenes, with both actors allowed to stretch out and show some of their paces.
To prevent the Algerian situation escalating into an international sport crisis, Ian (and for some reason Graham, the Head of Infrastructure) end up at the Foreign Office. Tim Bentinck gives a very good turn as a typical inhabitant of the FO: arrogant, somehow brusque and politely formal at the same time, imbued with an Olympian disdain which he doesn’t scruple to turn on just about everyone around him. When the teleconferencing system goes wrong and Graham manages to insult the Algerian representative (Mozaffar Shafeie), his contempt is given full reign. Seb/Lord Coe appears in this bit as well. It’s really folksy and charming of him to appear on a TV show about how everyone who works for him is an idiot, and how he has to deal with international crises practically on his own. Whattaguy.
Dr. Jem Bloomfield studied at the universities of Oxford and Exeter and is currently an Associate Lecturer in Drama at Oxford Brookes. His research covers the performance of Early Modern drama and the various ways it has been adapted and co-opted throughout the centuries. His own plays include “Bewick Gaudy”, which won the Cameron Mackintosh Award for New Writing, and he is working on a version of Oliver Goldsmith’s comedy “She Stoops To Conquer”. His writing on arts, culture, and politics have appeared in “California Literary Review”, “Strand Magazine” and “Liberal Conspiracy”. He blogs at “Quite Irregular” and can be found on Twitter @jembloomfield