Saturday, 10 November 2007


Saturday, 10 November 2007
Writer: Chris Niel
Director: Richard Laxton

Cast: Stephen Mangan (Alex), Sharon Horgan (Helen), Anthony Head (Stephen), Frances Tomelty (Sylvia) & Nick Barber (Tod)

A theatrical agent, going through a nasty divorce, has a disastrous one-night stand with a work colleague...

The Comedy Showcase season has provided fairly consistent laughs and some amusing one-off ideas, but Free Agents is undoubtedly the first episode that seems to warrant further episodes...

Stephen Mangan (Green Wing) stars as Alex, a recently divorced theatrical agent whose life is crumbling around his ears, forced to sleep on the sofa in his tiny office. Sharon Horgan (Annually Retentive) plays Helen, a work colleague who has a one-night stand with Alex, but it only results in fueling Alex's self-loathing.

From a fairly innocuous premise, Free Agents essentially plays around with the two characters' personalities -- as Alex grapples with his downward spiral, and Helen does her best to keep their one-night stand in perspective.

Anthony Head (Buffy The Vampire Slayer) continues to surprise and delight, here giving a scene-stealing performance as the pair's agency boss Stephen -- a foul-mouthed, sexually-suggestive middle-aged man. "I know you all think I’m a sex-crazed old pervert. But, you know, I’m more than that: I’m a pervert and a father," is just one of many filthy comments he spits out, much to everyone's discomfort...

British comedy has always had a love-affair with life's losers, and Stephen Mangan is particularly adept at playing them -- he was, lest we forget, the adult Adrian Mole in a TV series once. Here, he gives a very engaging performance, making Alex plausibly maudlin and sympathetic, but never depressingly so. It's a stark contrast to his more energetic roles on Green Wing and those Barclaycard adverts, but it's clear to me he's better suited to playing world-weary thirtysomethings.

Sharon Horgan may be a familiar face if you remember the first run of The Friday Night Project, or as Donna in Pulling. She certainly seems more at home in a sitcom, giving a very natural performance and enjoying a believable spark with Mangan.

The plot itself is little more than a series of small events, although the main bit of business involved Helen insisting Alex represent Tod (Nick Barber), a mime artist who's dating her mother. Free Agents is a psychological battle between Helen and Alex, in the aftermath of them sleeping together, both guilt-ridden for different reasons -- Alex, because he's just walked out on his wife and kids; and Susan, because her boyfriend Pete recently died...

On the surface, it's quite a depressing and gloomy show -- but I prefer to think of it as realistic and with more on its mind than pratfalls and wordplay. Alex and Helen are grounded and behave like real people (mostly), with Stephen the only character clearly flagged as a comedy exaggeration.

Overall, by the time Free Agents came to an end, I found myself wanting to see where Alex and Sharon's burgeoning "relationship" goes from here, which is just as it should be. Mangan and Horgan both give fine performances, there are some wonderful lines of dialogue from writer Chris Niel, and surprisingly brilliant support from Head as their rude boss.

Of all the Comedy Showcases so far, Free Agents is definitely the only one that has the right combination of talent, premise and writing quality to sustain future episodes.

9 November 2007
Channel 4, 10.30 pm