★ (out of five)
BEFORE we try to explain why London Irish is, to borrow one of their own phrases, “a barrel of balls,” a few words for the defence.
It’s hard to make a decent comedy. The proof is in the dearth of funny programmes. Since the last great Irish comedy, Father Ted, what has there been?
RTÉ struck a rich vein of material that was never going to last in the early 2000s. Paths to Freedom was excellent, as was the first series of Bachelors Walk. In the years that have followed there has been a string of forgettable comedies.
The state broadcaster had an open goal a couple of years back with Hardy Bucks. The self-produced YouTube shorts captured small-town Ireland in all its absurdity and hilarity. Then the Montrose professionals managed to suck the lifeblood from something beautiful.
Hopes for London Irish were inflated by the fact that it would have nothing to do with Donnybrook’s finest. Instead, like Father Ted, it would air on Channel 4.
Apart from the appearance of Ardal O’Hanlon, that is where the commonality ends.
London Irish depicts hard-drinking, wise-cracking 20-somethings in a no-clichés-barred manner.
The show does not shirk the depravity of what makes up for a lot of people’s squandered youth. What it misses, though, is the heart and soul; the humanity and warmth behind the cruelty and slagging. And, most crucially of all for this genre of television programme, it misses the humour.
There are many problems with London Irish. The biggest by far is that it is not funny. Not even a little bit.
Characters don’t have to be likeable but they at least need to be people we’d enjoy being around; people you could imagine laughing at or with if you were in their company.
Instead we get this bunch:
Packy: forgettable, waffling student type with an alright jacket.
Conor: zany student type. If you think somebody arriving home from a night out with a road sign under his arm is hysterical, you’d probably like him.
Niamh: ditzy and oblivious but not in an endearing way; Just irritating. Imagine an Irish Phoebe Buffay, now make her more stupid and more annoying.
Bronagh: the pick of the bunch: every word spat out of her pursed gob is acidic, vitriolic, bitter or insulting. Where the others are underwhelming, watching and listening to her wears you down. A c**t is what she likes to call others. She is one herself.
These dull, unsympathetic characters are the product of bad writing and are teamed up with more bad writing as the show progresses. An example of this is Niamh’s psycho smack-dealing boyfriend. He’s called Tyson. That’s just incredibly lazy. If everybody approached the naming of secondary characters like that there would be no Tod Unctuous, no Pat Mustard, no Father Stone.
The first episode meanders along pointlessly towards the culmination at a pub quiz. Along the way we’re treated to jokes that show the characters as prejudiced against English people and Protestants and we learn they are not afraid to take the piss out of people with disabilities.
There may be a backlash against some of this (in the next episode jokes about necrophilia and paedophilia enter the mix). Lots of viewers out there are engaged in competitive outraged but in the internet age it is fairly tough to shock the majority.
Ultimately, a debate on what joke is or isn’t acceptable would earn London Irish a reprieve it doesn’t deserve.
The least acceptable form of jokes will always be those that aren’t funny. For that reason alone, Packy, Conor, Niamh and Bronagh (especially Bronagh) can f*** right off.