Today is the first anniversary of the smoking ban in England. And, by complete coincidence, last night I finished watching the first series of The Smoking Room.
Brian Dooley’s rather brilliant sitcom rightly won him a BAFTA. It’s a deliciously simple idea: the people who pass through the workplace smoking room, but they’re not allowed to talk about work. In effect it’s a series of one-act, one-set comic plays, where the focus is the continually increasing gang of regular characters, the way they see the world and the more we learn about them.
Robert Webb’s Robin seems the lead character by dint of him being almost always on the screen. There’s a running gag that he never actually does any work (though in the Christmas special (oddly, a “special feature” on the DVD) he nearly succumbs to the tyrannical thrill of wielding his own clipboard). As a result, we tend to see characters through Robin’s eyes: its his reactions, rolled eyes and tutting, that signpost other character’s selfishness and stupidity.
I’d assumed, having foolishly not seen the thing when it was on telly, that it’d be more about terrible awkwardness and embarrassment, trying to thief from The Office. But there’s something much more generous about the situations here, something kinder about the relationships. Though they may be exasperated with one another, misunderstand or misuse each other, they’re united by the common aim of escaping the monotony of work for a blessed moment.
The gags come thick and fast: some downright crude, some slapstick, some silly. I realise already it needs rewatching because there’s so much crammed in there. At one point the cast are all unconsciously quoting Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” at Debbie Chazen’s character, Annie. Another time, Lilian (Paula Wilcox) comes in to find a whole room of people wearing masks of her face, bearing down on her like the Slitheen stalks poor Jackie Tyler at the end of Aliens of London. Also, this is the only telly I can think of that actually forks out for the right to have the cast sing “Happy Birthday”.
I’ve struggled to write something about individual characters but it would spoil too many great revelations. So if you haven’t watched it, watch it.
But it’s also a snapshot of a particular time: the brief period in English life between being able to smoke at your desk and then not being able to smoke anywhere on the premises. Full of trapped and bored people, longing for their holidays, the smoking room itself is itself an uneasy, unsustainable compromise.
On Saturday, we also saw The Smoking Room’s Selina Griffiths on stage in Afterlife at the National. Note performances and a clever set but I was a bit nonplussed by Michael Frayn’s script. It seemed to have things to say about the folly and hubris of man in the context of terrible history, and the role of drama in making sense of the real. But when you juxtapose one man’s ambitions for his theatre with the Nazis and exile and poverty, poncing about on stage and not worrying about the bills just seems a bit… self-indulgent.
On Sunday it struck me again how appallingly dated The Living Daylights is for foregrounding Bond with a cigarette. And jeez, how can he lecture his boss on questionable shopping while wearing that checked jacket? Anyway. Much more exciting, of course, is this:
How soon before I’m looking back on it in wonder as a snapshot of quaint, forgotten 2008?