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.

Ends

Dan McGinn is a journalist who was previously the Ireland Political Editor and Ireland Deputy Editor of the Press Association and has worked for the Irish News, Belfast Telegraph and other publications and for TV and radio. He currently works in public affairs and is also a film and television critic with his own blog,  They’ll Love It In Pomona covering the latest cinema releases.