For those unaware, ZAZ famously bought the rights to an obscure disaster film called Zero Hour!, and scribbled over its script with sight gags, absurd dialogue, and general tomfoolery. Then they cast actors famous for dramatic work, which thus made everything funnier performed deadpan. Zero Hour!'s basic plot and large chunks of dialogue were even left intact. A Touch of Cloth was created in a similar way, with producers buying an unmade storyline for Boris Stahling's gritty drama Messiah and embellishing it with absurdity and pratfalls. The result is something that plays like the cynical grandson of the classic Police Squad!, but it took until the second episode for this show's tone and style to crystallize.
Comedy being what it is, for every sight gag I rolled my eyes over, or just saw coming a mile away, someone else probably had a hearty belly-laugh. Still, there was stuff that worked brilliantly for me: the opening titles of Jack Cloth constantly turning to face the camera; WPC Cardboard Cut-Out as the token uniformed officer making up the numbers (also a nod to Airplane!'s inflatable autopilot?); the over-explanatory crime scene liaison; constant fetishist smash-cuts of dead bodies; two people flirting while on jury duty; the scene where relatives of a murder victim were shown a body for identification (where communicative nods were used very poorly); EastEnders' Todd Carty making an unexpected cameo and then inexplicably hanging around as part of the team; a horny cop who kept finding rude material to lust over in work time; and the ambiguity of locations (e.g. the City of Town Hospital in Placefordshire). Oh, and acting legend Brian Cox stepping on a rake. Classic.
The rest was worth a chuckle or a wry smile some of the time, but a fair bit didn't work for me—such as the protracted Casino Royale-inspired sequence of Oldman chasing a suspect doing parkour, or the number of times a photo of Piers Morgan caused dry-vomiting. Some of the background gags were okay, while others were very ill-conceived or plain unfunny (Oldman's lesbian lover had BOOB POWER spelled out on her fridge in magnetic letters... um, ha-ha?)
The performances were largely better than the material, that's for sure, although I'm not sure why Brooker chose to ignore a fundamental rule of Airplane! and cast actors who've done comedy before. Imagine how much better it would have been with genuinely serious actors you don't associate with humour in the slightest. However, John Hannah was spot-on as Jack Cloth, no doubt channelling his days on Rebus; and I enjoyed Julian Rhind-Tutt as Tom Boss, the amateur polyglot (who also suffered an unfortunate breaking of wind after eating a scotch egg). Unfortunately, Suranne Jones was disappointing in a woolly role, perhaps because her character was too close to Cloth's in terms of emotional range. Far better was Daisy Beaumont as dirty-minded pathologist Natasha Sachet, who made a bigger impression thanks to a character capable of bolder, tongue-in-cheek fun. I'd have preferred her as Cloth's partner, actually.
I enjoyed A Touch of Cloth, which was rescued by a surprisingly funny and spirited second half. I was less enamoured with the very inconsistent premiere, and was sharpening my knives until part 2 turned the boat around. I just hope the two remaining Cloth specials (already commissioned and currently filming) have better success getting the pace right, as well as ensuring Cloth and Oldman become funny characters in their own right, and not just empty stereotypes going through the motions.
written by Charlie Brooker, Daniel Maier, Ben Caudell, Peter Holmes, Jason Hazeley & Joel Morris / directed by Jim O'Hanlon / 26 & 27 August 2012 / Sky1