Number Twos – the clue’s in the title

People in Northern Ireland like to blow their trumpet about our mischievous black sense of humour.

But what do you if that trumpet sounds suspiciously like a kazoo?

That was the question some people must have been asking after the opening episode of BBC Northern Ireland’s sitcom ‘Number Twos’ from the Hole in the Wall Gang team of Tim McGarry, Michael McDowell and Damon Quinn.

What’s it like?

Well, the clue’s in the title.

‘Number Twos’ began with images of Parliament Buildings and Stiff Little Fingers’ ‘Alternative Ulster’ defiantly blaring on the soundtrack.

Our introduction to the Department for Equality Proofing, Cross Community Co-operation and the Implementation of Shared Future Strategies was Michael Condron’s put upon civil servant Ricky pretending to be a worker in an Indian call centre for a complaints line about flags or marches.

We were then introduced to Sophie Harkness’s Sinead who we were told had to work for the DUP minister, Game of Thrones actor Ian Beattie’s McCoubrey because she was a Catholic. Ricky, of course, is a Protestant and has to work for the Sinn Fein Minister O’Hare, played by Marty Maguire.

Our first sight of the two ministers was on the floor of the Northern Ireland Assembly, with McCoubrey comparing the shared future strategy to toilet roll which he intended to use after eating curry and yoghurt.

O’Hare countered for his lunch he was having a green apple, a sandwich made of white bread and an orange which he stood on, claiming it would be the only orange foot to march past the Ardoyne shops.

You get the picture.

Add into mix Patrick Fitzsimmons’ bitter Permanent Secretary, Tony Hunt and you have the recipe for cutting edge satire – right?

Ehm, no.

What we got was what we normally get from BBC Northern Ireland sitcoms – jokes that are so laboured you can hear them panting for their punchlines and actors with exaggerated facial expressions believing that if they shout slogans highlighting their characters’ prejudices loud enough that will be uproariously funny.

Stormont would, you think, be ripe for biting satire.

But this wasn’t so much ‘The Thick of It’ as ‘Everyone’s Thick’.

For satire to really work, you have to have a firm grasp of the complexities and idiosyncrasies of what you are sending up.

And you must have a certain degree of affection for your characters, no matter how monstrous.

It’s why ‘Rev’s’ ribbing of the Church of England really worked.

It’s why ‘The Office’ and ‘IT Crowd’ brilliantly lampooned the workplace.

It’s why Armando Iannucci’s ‘The Thick of It’ and ‘Veep’ wickedly send up Westminster and Washington.

‘Number Twos’ has no such affection for its characters – just contempt.

Like its predecessor ‘Give My Head Peace’, ‘The Number Twos’ trades in the same one dimensional stereotypes – the unionist bigot on the make (McCoubrey is Uncle Andy in a suit) and the republican bigot on the make (O’Hare is Da in, well, a suit) and they are far from loveable.

The put upon civil servants Ricky and Sinead are basically variations on ‘Give My Head Peace’s’ Billy and Emer/Dympna – the twist being Ricky is trying to be a little bit like Chris O’Dowd’s Roy in ‘The IT Crowd’, Siobhan is meant to be a little bit like Katherine Jenkins’ Jen and his civil service boss, Hunt is meant to be as psychotic as Denham/Douglas.

But what really let the sitcom down was its broad brush approach to Stormont.

So while McGarry, Quinn and McDowell liberally sprinkled not always topical side swipes at Jim Allister, Edwin Poots, Nelson McCausland, Iris Robinson and the Shinners’ for their insistence that government documents must be printed in Irish, there wasn’t even a basic grasp of the real mechanics of a government department – just lazy stereotypes.

Another ingredient of effective satire is it must be daring. It must be ballsy.

This was comedy with a rubber ring, serving up the same old, same old. There was no innovation, no insight, no fun.

Even after one episode, I’ve decided to flush these ‘Number Twos’ away.


  • The Firemen

    I found this review very harsh. There were some genuinely funny laugh out loud moments in Number 2s and I look forward to many more.

    Half the battle in ‘Our Wee Country’ is persuading BBC Northern Ireland to take risks and Tim and Co. have faced an uphill battle to bring some form of satire back to our screens for many years. No-one wants to offend ‘the other side’.

    Sure it was stereotypical but aren’t the likes of Gregory Campbell, Jim Allister et al walking stereotypes?

    Tim McGarry, Damon Quinn and Michael McDowell are fine satirists (as has been proven time and time again).

    Let them cut loose and who knows what might happen.

    Let it breathe.

  • Katie-o

    It was desperate.

  • Redstar

    Absolutely cringeworthy. About as funny as piles

  • notimetoshine

    Hard to find nuance and complexity with the crackpot ideas of most nationalistunionist politicos. There’s only so much you can do with one dimensional subject matter. Interesting how this article expects some nuanced deep satire, when our politics is anything but deep and nuanced. The farcical give my head some peacemrs brown style is what suits the subject matter. Deep satire might give them more credit than they deserve. This isn’t Washington, this isn’t London, hell it isn’t even Dublin. Its Belfast.

  • sean treacy

    Sure is’nt one side as bad as the other blah blah blah.Infantile rubbish on a par with the worst drivel that James Young produced.All that was missing was someone to shout in a faux Belfast accent “Stap fightin” !

  • kalista63

    The only decent comedy programme made here was The Show, hosted by David Dunseith, which I believe BBC NI have deleted all copies of.

    Is their non political humour to be found in NI! Well, Catherine Tate, Harry Enfield and Peter Kay had no bother finding resources. I literally squirm when I watch the ‘mainland’ guest on The Blame Game as I’d someone has walked in to the house during a very awkward family moment. Then we have that fella who thinks he’s James Young, who wasn’t even funny. Unfortunately, I was in the motor an evening or two ago and there was a show about that fella. Again, I squirmed.

    I did give the radio show a fair wind and was astonished to hear that it won an award. When i saw the ad for the telly show I knew they wouldn’t take the opportunity to polish the script and characterisation.

    BBC NI, like all of the BBC, is a clique and suffers a severe lack of freshness. They did have a show with that guy who does the quite funny I Fighter and it flopped and got cancelled. Perhaps if they were in the clique, they’d have had the chance of a second go, maybe with better material?

  • kalista63

    No harm but I couldn’t disagree with this more. McGarry and Co are talentless opportunists who should be sent back from whence they came.

  • kalista63

    But there are comedians like Jeremy Hardy and Mark Thomas who are VERY clued in to NI politics and have been for decades. Of course, they’d show up the panelists for the lazy amateurs that they are.

    The ‘mainland’ guest basically sits there until McGarry feeds them a rehearsed line so they can go I. To a snippet of their routine that I’ve seen them do elsewhere.

  • Zeno


  • Deke Thornton

    Dire and unfunny.
    But if it had been a genuine attempt to satirize the massive waste of money that goes on the NI Civil Service, then it would have legs. But it attempted to legitimize the huge wastage that constitutes that non productive bureaucracy and duplication.

  • kalista63

    I’m full of self loathing for not thinking of that one.

  • barnshee

    Happy to see our reps portrayed as sectarian and uneducated (largely) greedy for money idiots Not sure how long a reality show will last.

  • kalista63

    This was meant for Zeno and his great one liner.

  • Belfast Barman(ager)

    It was absolutely woeful. It was like the view with a laugh track. No original writing or ideas, just rewording real events. Was it a sitcom? I’m not sure it wasn’t just an extended phone call on the Nolan show being played out by some not-great actors. I’m a huge comedy fan and have tried my hand at it on more than a few occasions, it saddens me that this has been commissioned when so many other projects have been rejected….or even dead air, dead air would have been better

  • Zeno

    Thanks………..I was going to go with…………

  • Dan

    Maybe the running joke will be the accent used to deflect the unwanted caller. My ribs are still aching about the Indian one. Maybe next week the cutting edge pain in the hole gang could get the actor to go all West Indian, or Chinese.
    Sure what could beat that? Comedy gold.
    To be honest, I’m surprised Larry David hasn’t snapped these guys up years ago to help him develop his ideas. They are that good.

  • chrisjones2

    …i find there ius a solution ……..i turn it off or liosten to Radio 4

  • chrisjones2

    I haven’t seen this documentary but am beginning to like it

    PS BBC – gissa job as a writee

  • Stewart

    A truly awful show. How this rubbish gets the go-ahead, is beyond me!

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I love Jeremy Hardy – less so Mark Thomas, he puts polemic before comedy IMHO – but NI is his Achilles heel. I wouldn’t have said he was clued into NI politics. He tends to base his NI gags around traditional British hard left pro-Republican views – in which most of us are looked down upon as chumps with ‘false consciousness’ – albeit I’m sure he’s non-violent. There’s no real analysis there.

    It’s always awkward on The News Quiz when he goes off on one about his loathing of unionists or his other Achilles heel, Israel. Next time he does it, see if any of the other guests follow up his joke on either of those topics – they never do.

    But he is my favourite person on the show and it’s by far the best satire show – I admire him tremendously as a comedian. But he is a comedian not a judge. He can’t be fair and intelligent about everything 😉

  • Adam Murray

    It was panto. From the thick makeup, the big box suits with the bright green or orange tie, the jerky and erratic arm movements, the politicians shouting all their lines, it was panto. I was half expecting/hoping that May McFettridge was going to wheel a tea trolley in at one point.

    I did laugh though at some of the jokes, particularly the ones aimed at specific politicians. But it all felt over acted and predictable. If it was a satirical cartoon it would have been drawn in chunky bright coloured crayons.

    So yeah, that’s just what kept going through my mind. This is pantomime, why have they made a pantomime…

    *sub-note: There’s not a single Norn Irishman alive called Ricky, and if there was he wouldn’t work in the civil service and he’d probably change his name.

  • Adam Murray

    By the way I think the world of Tim McGarry and he’s one of our greatest comedians, but what was excellent on the radio hasn’t transported so well over to TV and I don’t think that’s likely to be his fault at all.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Haven’t seen it yet – I’ll check it out on the iPlayer – but my hopes aren’t high. That said, McGarry et al are at least producing stuff. If there are funnier writers I’m sure the BBC would like to hear from them.

    But my experience of local comedy shows over the years has been, sad to say, they often play it as if to children – the exaggerated facial expressions someone else commented on, the Mrs Brown’s Boys-esque predictability and cosiness with the audience. The best comedy about Northern Ireland – and there hasn’t been much of it – has tended to come from comedians from elsewhere, who are prepared to bring a hard edge to things. Stewart Lee’s “Gentleman Bombers” routine on the 7/7 bombings is my favourite, there’s so much in there:

    “Who are they, these inhuman bombers that strike at the very heart of our society with no respect for human life, without even the courtesy of a perfunctory warning? It makes you nostalgic, doesn’t it, for the good old days of the IRA. ’Cause they gave warnings, didn’t they? They were gentleman bombers, the finest terrorists this country’s ever had. We’ll not see their like again. Let’s have a little clap for the IRA . . . ’Cause the IRA, they were decent British terrorists. They didn’t want to be British. But they were. And, as such, they couldn’t help but embody some fundamentally decent British values”.

    I believe he even performed that once in Stroke City.

    Local comedians recoil, for understandable reasons of not wanting to offend, but it makes for underpowered comedy.

    Northern Ireland is still waiting for its “Four Lions” – it’s gagging to be made. I just can’t think of any current Northern Irish comedian(s) or writers up to the task, sorry to say. Now, if we could get Arthur Mathews on the case …

  • kalista63

    Israel is a touchy topic for almost all comedians on the BBC,see what happened to Frankie Boyle after his IDF joke.. I think this even extends to laughing along with or joining in a joke about Israel

    I do agree that Thomas has gone off on some other tangent and really wish he’d return to his own style, which I think has more power and lends itself better to extending to the wider public.

    I think Mark holds up a mirror to unionism that can be uncomfortable as was Harry Enfield’s. Harry’s is still reflected i online reaction to unionists behaviour in Westminster and ‘mainland’ reaction to their attitude to LGBT and reproductive rights when they hit the ‘national’ media. I think this might be a topic for another thread, though, rather than on this one.

  • kalista63

    It did breathe, on the form of its radio show and it quickly developed an acute dose of COAD,

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I did used to know some Rickys at school … I can think of at least 2.

  • kalista63

    Jake O’ Kane’s ‘I’m a taig from the New Lodge but they’re all arses. Have I mentioned my wife’s a prod’ routine is bloody tiresome.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Where jokes about politics stray into taking sides in ethnically partisan disputes, there is an issue. ‘Play the ball not the person’ / ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’ are groundrules that work in comedy as much as anything else.

    Even then, it’s not simple. If I choose to do a routine taking the p*** out of behaviours I know mainly come from one group, I’m sort of targeting that group, as much as the behaviour. Really tricky to negotiate. But I come down on the side of just focussing on the behaviour and going for it. Then maybe challenging yourself as a writer to look at, in Northern Ireland, the other community with the same critical eye and come up with something for them. Though even that doesn’t guarantee ‘balance’.

    What Harry Enfield did with William Ulsterman, which I really enjoyed btw, was to have an equally annoying Gerry Adams-esque character sidling up. There’s a sort of balance there. The problem of course is that SF are the equivalent of the PUP, not the DUP-esque William Ulsterman character. Arguably, treating peaceful politicians and paramilitaries to the same kind of satire fails to adequately satirise the paramilitaries – it accepts the paramilitaries’ self-presentation that they are to be treated the same as non-murderous politicians, boosting them rather than puncturing their self-image.

    Btw Robbie Coltrane had a great Scottish Orangeman character in “Laugh I Nearly Paid My Licence Fee” called Mason Boyne. We used to love this back in my schooldays:

  • BetsyGray

    Will the BBCNI please take a bow for this humourless claptrap of drivel. Its not the Empire Laughs Back pub anymore….twenty odd years ago. This is comedy on the cheap with the same old cringing slapstick of the past. What ever happened to Pearce Elliots ‘Pulling Moves’…it was worthy.

  • kalista63

    But Anna is a star.

  • Adam Murray

    Maybe it’s just me then 😛

  • Practically_Family

    I was once an onlooker at a lengthy discussion into the possibilities of producing a Northern Ireland based soap, now admittedly it was a few years ago, but the upshoot was that there was just no realistic chance of doing it… At least not in Northern Ireland!

  • eiregain

    “The farcical give my head some peacemrs brown style is what suits the subject matter. Deep satire might give them more credit than they deserve.”

    After watching Number 2s i decided i will give the second episode a chance as it made me laugh a few times, “have you ever been to bangor minister?”

    I couldn’t agree more however that the intellect and depth of the comedy is reflective of the politics and probably reflective of the electorate.

  • Sir Rantsalot

    Haven’t seen it yet myself, I’ll check iplayer. From comments here I have a low expectation. The sectarian stereo type stuff is really 20 years out of date, really skin crawling cringe factor 1 million when I see it on NI TV in the 21st Century…. Its sad that there are people still living in a bubble that consists of only being able to see things in an old fashioned 2 tribal way. They don’t know any different probably.
    It must have been 10 years ago or so, but I remember Nuala McKeever had a comedy show and had local characters that made me laugh without any P v C nonsense. Why cant people do that these days?

  • Cue Bono

    “Some people at the pictures

    Run out before the Queen”

  • ted hagan

    This was about as funny as Julian Simmons doing his Coronation Street spiel. Surely there must be better talent around than this?

  • ted hagan

    I’m angry at the cost to the licence fee payer. It must have cost well over fifty quid for the set alone.