Shiny Shelf

The Smoking Room

By Eddie Robson on 03 November 2004

‘The Smoking Room’ has been deemed a failure already as it arrives on BBC2 from BBC3, with the trailers tossing around quotes from a handful of glowing reviews in a desperate attempt to win higher ratings than its BBC3 run achieved. I watched the first episode regardless as it’s based around an idea I’m kicking myself for not having thought of first.

The concept is genius: the employees of an unspecified company sit in the shabby designated smoking area and simply talk. It’s ultra-cheap, as every episode takes place entirely on one small set, and it’s a great excuse for forcing disparate characters to spend time with each other. Having actually seen the show, I still wish I’d written it – and not in a bitter I-could’ve-done-that-better kind of way. I really enjoyed it.

Apparently, the main factor that has helped to kill ‘The Smoking Room’ is a proliferation of lazy comparisons to ‘The Office’. This is like writing off the frequently hilarious ‘Family Guy’ because it’s quite like ‘The Simpsons’. Given that being an apathetic middle-ranking employee in a faceless office is a pretty common experience these days, there is surely room for more than one comic take on it. ‘The Office’ has not said all there is to say.

The humour of ‘The Smoking Room’ is quite different, focussing more around that notion of interactions between people who have nothing in common except their workplace and nicotine dependency. It eschews the mock-docu-soap style of ‘The Office’ and arguably bears more resemblance to ‘The Royle Family’, with its single location and real-time unfolding of events. I particularly like the fact that we are never told where the office is or what the company even does (shop talk is banned from the smoking room).

It also affords an opportunity for a genuinely mixed cast, something which few sitcoms provide. Robert Webb (blatantly playing the writer’s identification figure) is excellent, distinctly different from his performance in Channel 4’s ‘Peep Show’, and in support there’s Siobahn Redmond (a return to comedy that will be welcomed by fans of ‘The High Life’) and (fanfare please) LESLIE SCHOFIELD, an under-employed TV great.

It’s not the most instantly appealing of sitcoms: you won’t be wandering around quoting your favourite lines to people at work, which is probably just as well as this might lead to your sense of irony collapsing in on itself. It’s slow and it aims to let the characters develop rather than instantly shoving them in your face. This is, however, not necessarily a bad thing. It would be nice if the BBC would give it another run to settle in – it can’t cost much to make, surely?

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By Eddie Robson

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