[SPOILERS] Based on a pilot that aired on BBC Three in 2007 (starring Chris Barrie and Kevin Bishop), later developed into an unaired pilot the following year, The Scum Also Rises has now been renamed The Persuasionsists and finds itself promoted to BBC2 in a prime 10pm timeslot. The generous scheduling and a talented cast are sadly the only merits in what proved to be a stultifying, clichéd, unfunny clutter of misfiring jokes and strained characters.
Written/created by Jonathan Thake (an erstwhile ad man who created the controversial Pot Noodle "Slag Of All Snacks" campaign), The Persuasionists is a contemporary version of Mad Men -- if someone replaced Matthew Weiner with a lobotomized Graham Linehan and recast it with half-familiar faces from the fringe of British comedy. It's the perfect example of what happens when you attempt to salvage a terrible script and weak characters with talented performers and an experienced director -- the actors try to compensate by overacting and the pace is cranked up to try and hide its deficiencies.
The Persuasionists takes place in advertising agency HHH+H, where a group of thirtysomething ad men exist in a heightened, cartoon-y version of reality. This worked well for the likes of Father Ted, or even Black Books, but a subject like advertising would be best tackled as a mockumentary if you ask me.
The staff at the agency are harried Greg (Adam Buxton), cynical creative Billy (Iain Lee), ditzy Emma (Daisy Haggard), Eastern-European oddball Keaton (Simon Farnaby), and their rambunctious Aussie boss Clive (Jarred Christmas). In this opener, Billy has been tasked to sell Cockney Cheese, but has only come up with the slogan "Leave It Aaat!!!!!", which proves a difficult sell to their terrifying client "Cockney Jim" (Lee Ross).
It takes a special kind of terrible to make the recent Reggie Perrin remake (also set in the world of advertising) look clever and fun, but The Persuasionists achieves this. It's extremely disappointing to see such an eclectic, likeable group of comedians thrown together with no material worth their time and effort. Adam Buxton's a very funny man, but his occasional forays into the world of sitcom continually fail to capture his charms; Iain Lee looked noticeably uncomfortable throughout (either realizing he's in a stinker, or wishing he'd paid more attention in acting class); we were expected to believe that smiley Daisy Haggard (a pin-up as drawn by Quentin Blake) would be a social pariah; and Jarred Christmas just resorted to shouting. The only two actors who managed to elicit any kind of amusement were the two given the most outrageous characters -- Simon Farnaby (playing a corny sex-crazed Euro-nutter, but playing it well), and EastEnders' Jim Lee Ross (who can play strutting cockney monsters in his sleep.)
Overall, while the premise has potential and the actors could find form, without strong scripts I can't see The Persuasionists lasting more than one series. The thing about sitcoms is you get a good idea of how worthwhile the journey will be from first episodes, even allowing for development and refinement. If the characters and jokes are feeble from the get-go, it's hard to imagine they'll improve to any great extent. To me recollection, there aren't many sitcoms that had a similarly terrible first episode, but went on to become beloved classics. I doubt The Persuasionists will be the first to buck this trend.
13 January 2010 BBC2, 10pm
written by: Jonathan Thake directed by: Tristram Shapeero starring: Adam Buxton (Greg), Jarred Christmas (Clive), Simon Farnaby (Keaton), Daisy Haggard (Emma), Iain Lee (Billy), Lee Ross (Cockney Jim), Gemma Whelan (Josephine), Roxanne McKee (Christine), Natalie Gumede (Susie) & Shola Adewus (Cleaning Lady)