Johnny Depp’s favourite comic actor returns in what is easily the best vehicle for his talents since ‘The Fast Show’. Paul Whitehouse’s previous project, ‘Happiness’, may have boasted polished scripts and an enviable cast, but he seemed to be more or less playing himself. Not in the sense that the programme was autobiographical – I don’t know enough about his private life to judge – but in the sense that the character’s vocal mannerisms and body language were the ones you see when he’s just being himself.
Probably this was an attempt to stretch himself as an actor, denying himself the option of falling back on caricature, and he did it very well. But caricature is what he’s best at, he’s like a physical cartoonist, and in ‘Help’ he has created a vehicle which allows him to do this outside the constraints of the sketch format where he made his name. The format of ‘Help’ is halfway between sketch and sitcom, as Whitehouse plays the various clients of a psychiatrist. It suits him perfectly, and one could almost imagine him making this show endlessly, essaying a continuous parade of peculiar characters.
The episode featured about eight Whitehouse creations (I’m not sure, I lost count): the simplicity of the format allows for substantial changes in tone from what character to another. The elderly cab driver’s segment is quite poignant; the upper-class codger with the speech impediment is enjoyably daft; the Mediterranean man who is trying to control his rages features a blacker humour. My favourite was the west-country crusty who claims to be able to enter the minds of others. There are more to come as the series goes on.
Whitehouse is aided by excellent make-up work – the best I’ve ever seen on British television – and a great foil in the form of Chris Langham. Langham’s comic timing is unrivalled and he is consistently undervalued as an actor, quietly providing excellent support in often unworthy projects. I used to watch ‘Kiss Me Kate’ (a Caroline Quentin vehicle, for chrissakes) because he was in it. His superb work on the spoof documentary series ‘People Like Us’ probably would have established him more firmly had he not been off-screen the whole time (unfortunately, his film-maker character was much funnier if he remained unseen).
‘Help’ ought to belatedly propel Langham to the British comedy A-list: it’s a genuine original which showcases two comic talents to the best of their respective abilities. (Note to US TV’s format-hunters: don’t buy this one unless you’ve got a VERY talented actor lined up.)