11 Jan 2009

Fame For A Laugh - Independent

+ posted by Sez

A couple of new comedy programmes confirm that the vogue for celebrities willing to display a sense of humour is showing no sign of abating, writes Rob Sharp

Lindsay Carol is a radio DJ at the achingly hip London station Skin FM. He wants to hang around with the in crowd, but goes to the wrong nightclubs. He spends his days trying to sleep with Miquita Oliver and meeting acts such as The Charlatans, Ladyhawke, Sway and The Wombats.

This could be a day in the life of any Xfm or Radio 1 employee. But it is the plot of 2009's answer to Nathan Barley, FM, a sitcom to be broadcast for six episodes on ITV2 next month. Starring The IT Crowd's Chris O'Dowd, this deeply funny satire is the highlight of a raft of shows to be televised this year in which high-profile figures from the entertainment world, everyone from Tim Westwood to Justin Hawkins of The Darkness, present themselves, and the lives of those around them, in a less-than-appealing light.

"FM is set in indie radio and is a naturalistic show," says the programme's producer, Izzy Mant. "As such it features real people who might appear in that world. To give you an example, we have an episode where a music-industry pub quiz is being held. One of the teams has Tim Westwood and Richard Bacon, and the quizmaster is Jamie Theakston. They wanted to appear in FM because it is gently mocking the world of radio and music, a world they know well. A lot of the music industry takes itself quite seriously and this is a chance for them to show they have a sense of humour. It is nice for them to have the public know that. We encouraged them through their cameos to be themselves." Other well-known figures in the show include Toyah Willcox, Marianne Faithfull and television and radio host Sarah Champion. Every episode sees a different band play a live set as themselves.

The show joins Channel 4's foray into celebrity self-awareness, Plus One, which begins tonight. The romcom stars actor Daniel Mays and Duncan James of boy band Blue, effectively playing himself. In a nod to the recent Hollywood Russell Brand vehicle Forgetting Sarah Marshall, the programme is about a man whose girlfriend dumps him to hook up with James, who is much more successful than this lead character (Rob). Rob, played by Mays, has to find a "plus one" for James's wedding to his ex-girlfriend, and the six-part series follows his attempts to secure a good-looking lady to take to the event. James, needless to say, does not have to dig deep to play a smug star.

"Duncan is being brave, because he is sending himself up," says Plus One's executive producer Derek Wax. "He is annoying because he is so perfect. He plays a hugely talented, good-looking singer and dancer who appears all over the papers." Wax thinks that unlike the public figures who star in Ricky Gervais's wildly successful Extras – often considered to be the benchmark for celebrity-oriented comedy in recent years – Plus One does not portray James as selfish or narcissistic. "What's fresh about it is that he is not an unpleasant character," he continues. "It's all about the neuroses of Rob's character, it's about him wanting to be seen as cool and attractive and that is impossible when presented with someone like Duncan." Like Extras, the show examines people's ambivalence towards celebrity. On the one hand, people can be jealous of it, but on the other, they might secretly want to emulate their "heroes". "It stands for what a lot of people feel," adds Wax. "Status anxiety. Men often try to manoeuvre themselves into a position that makes them look cool and attractive. Duncan plays a person sent to torture Rob. He is also sending himself up. He plays a warped version of himself, basking in the adulation."

What is the precedent for shows such as Plus One? During the two series of Extras, which charted the career success of Andy Millman, a former extra-turned-successful comedy writer, the joke was always on Millman. But it was unclear what Gervais's attitude was towards his fellow stars. On the one hand, there were episodes where those boasting significant profiles significantly mocked their own lust for fame and public perception. Les Dennis starred in a 2005 episode in which he played a character who is starring in panto, who is on the verge of a breakdown, as well as embarking on an affair with a younger woman. This neatly mirrored events in Dennis's own life. He won critical plaudits – being seen as a "good sport", pulling no punches on his own image.

But other Extras episodes are much milder. Big names such as Samuel L Jackson and Ben Stiller portrayed themselves as control freaks and megalomaniacs. But such characteristics, while negative, were less appropriate for two actors who, while famous, are not particularly known for their hubris. Their appearances were characterised as a favour granted by Gervais to celebrity friends, to do much more for their profiles than against them. Gervais was accused of wanting to have his cake and eat it – mocking celebrity culture while at the same time allowing some of them off the hook. Despite being very funny, both Plus One and FM fall into this latter, milder satirical category.

Indeed, according to Mant, in FM, the joke is more on the show's three main characters. These are headed up by Carol, the desperate DJ who bumbles his way passionately through each show, regaling listeners with stories of his personal life. He tries, and fails, to compete in the fame stakes with fellow radio host and urban DJ Topher (O T Fagbenle). Lindsay's too-cool-for-school rock co-host Dom Cox (Kevin Bishop) annoys their music guests on a daily basis, through drunken or tardy antics (and, in the show's pilot, broadcast last year, often feels nervous around his celebrity friends). In the end, the famous people come off pretty lightly. "It allows the musicians to enjoy being filmed," says Mant. "The celebrities make our main characters feel small. The radio hosts are in awe of the bands they get to meet. There is lots of potential for them to try too hard."

Some shows pull no punches. Charlie Brooker's biting satire, Dead Set, currently running on Channel 4 in conjunction with the new series of Celebrity Big Brother, after being broadcast on E4 last year, is inspired by the classic 1978 George A Romero horror Dawn of the Dead, with a post-apocalyptic scenario applied to present-day Britain. The twist of Brooker's show is that the only people who survive the entire population turning into a load of blood-sucking zombies are the contestants in a series of Big Brother. The series features Big Brother host Davina McCall playing herself, before she turns into a member of the undead. It also has the memorable scene – displaying a cutting take on modern Britons' obsession with fame – where, looking out from a roof over an apocalyptic landscape, one of the contestants asks: "Does this mean we're not on telly any more?"

'Dead Set' is being screened alongside the latest series of 'Celebrity Big Brother' on Channel 4. '

Plus One' begins tonight on Channel 4. 'FM' is broadcast next month on ITV2


American John Kerry plays a version of himself in a scene –popular on YouTube – where he is mistaken as a television anchorman.

The Larry Sanders Show

Celebrities who appeared included 'X Files' star David Duchovny as himself, who Sanders feared was attracted to him.

Curb Your Enthusiasm

Celebrity cameos a-go-go. In Season 4, Larry David works with Mel Brooks, Ben Stiller and David Schwimmer to star in 'The Producers'.


Ricky Gervais's Bafta, Emmy and Golden Globe-winning sitcom taking a pop at celebrities' obsession with fame. Ben Stiller and Kate Winslet star.



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