[SPOILERS] Best known as the caustic presenter of Popworld and host of Never Mind The Buzzcocks, Simon Amstell surprised many people by turning his back on the latter comedy pop-quiz to pursue other projects. Grandma's House is his mould-breaking venture; a Royle Family-esque BBC sitcom, with Amstell playing a version of himself dealing with the difficulties of being a minor celebrity in an unremarkable suburban family. In this first episode Simon informed his doting family of his decision to quit TV presenting and try his hand at acting. It's all very meta...
Grandma's House had its moments (usually a well-delivered quip or turn-of-phrase), but it was ultimately very plodding and the cast's valiant efforts couldn't quite salvage it. A key problem for me was the disconnect of the premise, with Amstell playing himself as someone whose fame is awkward to handl, yet we're watching what amounts to the biggest vanity project on TV from the real-life Amstell: a sitcom he co-created and stars in, inspired by his own life.
And does Simon Amstell lead a particularly exciting or riotous family life worth basing a sitcom on? Not really. There's an outspoken aunt with the beginnings of a moustache, and his mum has a "prick" boyfriend called Clive, which is about as crazy as it gets. But that's not a barrier to comedy gold. The Royle Family weren't a very dynamic and stimulating group of characters either, but a huge demographic saw their own lives echoed in the Royle's slovenly northern ways and TV-obsessed livingroom culture. I'm not so sure The Amstell Family (as a southern, middle-class echo of the Royles) are as realistically drawn as Jim Royle and co.
Amstell's "character" is the biggest problem because most people don't have a national celebrity as a relation, and Amstell can't help writing himself the kind of snappy rejoinders and repartee that (while kind of funny) stuck out as being entirely fabricated. His remarked punctured the very realism Grandma's House was trying to build for itself every few minutes, particularly in one scene where he fumbled to respond to news his Grandpa might have prostate cancer.
As the lead, Amstell was more a sitcom gag-machine with the setting on sarcastic than a three-dimensional human being. Again, the trick of making comedy writing sound real is something The Royle Family turned into an art, but that skill feels beyond Amstell and co-writer Dan Swimer. Case in point: Amstell's younger cousin Adam (Jamal Hadjkura) talked openly about a porn site called "Interracial Creampies" in front of his mum, grandparents, aunt and brother. I mean, really? Maybe my own upbringing was comparatively puritan, but... really?
It's a shame, because if you ditched the idea of Amstell appearing as himself in this comedy and he'd had the good grace to write for someone else, Grandma's House had the required pace, decent dialogue, and a talented cast to give you some hope. The intended realism just didn't fit, and Amstell's acting was school play level competent at best, and he looked lost without an autocue.
Overall, there was enough potential in the characters and writing to lure me back for another visit to Grandma's House, but the meta concept isn't appealing and doesn't seem necessary. Simon Amstell (who carries the aura of a raging narcissistic brat, let's be honest) should have left his ego on Grandma's doorstep.
WRITERS: Simon Amstell & Dan Swimer
DIRECTOR: Christine Gernon
CAST: Simon Amstell, Linda Bassett, Rebecca Front, Jamal Hadjkura, Geoffrey Hutchings, Samantha Spiro & James Smith
TRANSMISSION: 9 August 2010 - BBC2/HD, 10PM