It’s had only modest success, but PhoneShop’s refusal to pander to an audience is what’s kept it fresh.
Ever watched PhoneShop? According to the viewing figures, you probably haven’t. The show premiered to audience numbers lower than the E4 average back in 2010, and things haven’t improved significantly since then – it’s still a sitcom with such apparently cult appeal that it’s a wonder E4 has taken it as far as three series. But thank God it has – the most-watched British comedies currently flooding the airwaves are largely dire (Mrs Brown’s Boys or Miranda, anyone?); PhoneShop, on the other hand, has invention up its sleeve.
Set on a typical UK high street, PhoneShop mixes the mundane with the absurd. It also wields the c-word like it’s an art form
Told through the eyes of Tom Bennett’s PhoneShop salesman, Christopher, who four years later is still being referred to as ‘Newman’, PhoneShop mixes the mundane with the absurd. The setting is a typical UK high street, but scenarios involve proud PhoneShop players Ashley and Jerwayne (Andrew Brooke and Javone Prince, the standouts) pimping themselves to ‘mature’ women for money, or the team faking a charity event by disguising manager Lance (Martin Trenaman) as a Chilean miner. It relies on heavy improvisation from the cast, something that’s often hit and miss, but which forms the comedic backbone of this show. It also wields the c-word like it’s an art form (“CHEERIO, CAHHHHHHNNNNT”).
Creator Phil Bowker has gone on record as saying he wants viewers to really, really love or really, really hate, but never remain indifferent to, PhoneShop. Indeed, the show can provoke strong reactions – the Arts Desk has called it “uninspiring”, while the Guardian last year lauded it as “hilarious”, at the same time pondering why the programme didn’t have a greater fanbase. For one reason or another, there hasn’t been much love or hate from audiences – for the most part, there’s only been a modest level of interest.
It’s not without reason. PhoneShop’s home is E4, something of a battleground for new comedy, and it’s difficult to calculate the show’s target demographic in the way that E4 teen sitcom The Inbetweeners was easily classifiable and comfortably transferable to the mainstream. PhoneShop is a juvenile comedy about adults, all of whom have humdrum, adult concerns (a fear of growing old plagues Jerwayne and Ashley, with Ashley’s growing bald spot a recurring tragicomic gag).
The language and mix of comedy styles can be jarring, but there are episodes here that put most modern comedies to shame
The language and mix of comedy styles, too, can be jarring – Ashley and Jerwayne speak in almost incomprehensible ‘Jafaican’ accents, while Tom Bennett is a quieter, Gervais-esque performer in a sitcom that veers from broad comedy to outlandishly weird humour. Opposite Bennett’s Christopher is pay-as-you-go saleswoman Janine, with Emma Fryer playing the character as if she were in another, altogether quirkier show. There are also, admittedly, whole episodes that fall flat – the series three closer, Do The Music, for instance, felt inessential and featured skits that ran for too long. But there are even more episodes that put most modern comedies to shame.
Take Baking Bad, the series three opener that took the hokey sitcom staple of characters accidentally ingesting drugs and played it out with manic energy and a melding of the surreal and the actual. “I done a fart; I didn’t know what it was, I started crying cos I couldn’t understand it,” moans Ashley under the influence of Lance’s potent hash cakes. Meanwhile clean-cut Christopher, ostensibly our straight-laced guide through all this nonsense, reacts by turning aggressive addict within minutes, stealing plastic display phones to fund his habit and taking a junkie girlfriend he finds at the bus station.
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At a time when all comedies seem to require a ‘purpose’ to justify their own existence, PhoneShop is comfortably chiefly funny for funny’s sake (though look closer, and you may see your own life paralleled in those of the main characters). There’s no preachy moralising, and there’s no overarching storyline – episodes could be shuffled at random and nothing would be lost to newcomers. This apparent disregard for modern comedic standards is part of PhoneShop’s charm, but most winning is its underdog quality: there are no stars here, the closest to a ‘name’ being Martin Trenaman, who played Simon’s father in The Inbetweeners, or Kayvan ‘Fonejacker’ Novak, who cameos as a boisterous salesman and head of the Elite Selling Krew.
The show panders to nobody, while Bowker and cast flesh things out with minute observations and ingenious wordplay
The premise of PhoneShop is deceptively simple, and maybe the on-surface basic dryness of the concept is why the show remains somewhat underground. But it belongs there, most probably. Success has turned a great deal of promising British comedies into ghosts of themselves, as they suddenly try to pander to an audience demanding more of the same (Little Britain and Gavin and Stacey are two recent examples that come to mind). PhoneShop began as a show seemingly not destined for enormous popularity, and it’s continued as something that’s pandered to nobody, with Bowker and the cast fleshing out thin plots with minute comic observations and ingenious wordplay. It’s an inspired British comedy, even if only in secret.
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All images: E4