Bleakness. Bleakness, modest living and a creeping sense of ennui offset by bouts of bloody-minded misanthropy. Not just the central tenets of our day to day life, but also the hallmarks of many great British situation comedies – Rising Damp, Hancock, Filthy, Rich & Catflap, take your pick. These days, what with your field removed video and establishing-shots-of-outside-the-building-with-one-eye-on-getting-your-series-flogged-to-a-US-cable-network, it’s not something you see quite as often, but it’s something 15 Storeys High had in spades.
Span out of a Radio 4 series that tellingly started out as “15 Minutes Of Misery”, the series centres on Vince, played by Sean “Pretty Much Incapable Of Not Being Funny” Lock, and Errol, played by Benedict “MED-I-BOT” Wong, two wasters sharing a grim council flat somewhere in London. Vince is the owner of the flat, a perpetually grumpy swimming instructor who hates physical contact, dislikes pretty much everyone who isn’t him, and is willing to post unwanted olives back to a pizza delivery firm. Errol is his lodger, a downbeat yet relatively optimistic Northerner, able to amuse himself by peeling away stray bits of wallpaper, and whose idea of fast living is ordering a Snoopy-shaped telephone from a catalogue. The action, such as it is, is offset by nice little glimpses into the lives of the other residents of the tower block. These range from the mundane (a woman who phones up people she’d had a bad dream about to check they’re okay, or a man desperately trying to unwrap a blank E180 before a film starts on telly), to the slightly-less-mundane (a divorced dad crams a pony into his flat to try and impress his daughter, a dumped boyfriend tries to win back his love by repeated punching a wall as hard as he can in anger).
As might be expected from a sitcom written by Sean Lock (alongside Martin Trenaman and Mark Lamarr, the latter under his real name of Mark Jones, which there’s nothing wrong with), the writing is of a tremendously high quality throughout, wringing out every last bit of humour from everyday situations. We’ve been loath to bung in quotes from the shows in the list thus far, but we’re prepared to let it slide for this, just so we can dip into an exchange from a scene where Vince tries to haggle up the price of the sofa he’s selling to a burly woman from a local minicab firm:
“That’s not bargaining, you middle-class ponce!”
“I’m not middle class!”
“’Course you are – you haven’t even got your telly on!”
“I was reading a book!”
“Well, when I say ‘book’, I mean ‘car manual’...”
There are many more marvellous moments we could quote from here (but won’t), though it’s worth pointing out that many of them are soundtracked wonderfully too. What might possibly be the slowest chase scene ever broadcast – Vince hobbling on a fractured ankle after a woman pushing a sofa in order to recover his supermarket loyalty card – is accompanied by The Propellerheads’ bombastic “Bang On”. In a later episode, a scene where Vince and an unusual vicar cause mayhem for a group of Hare Krishnas plays to the tune of France Gall’s “Ne Sois Pas Si Bete”. The show also takes in different camera styles as circumstance dictates – Vince’s flashbacks to previous traumas (some real, some borrowed from the anecdotes of others) are often shown with a film effect (not on actual film – hey, BBC Choice budget here), while the duo wandering around various London landmarks in search of an old man is recorded on camcorder. It’s like the use of different paper stocks in The Rutland Dirty Weekend or The Goodies Disaster Movie books, but on telly.
Commendably, little of the plot is merely extrapolated from Lock’s stand-up set, but where he has done just that, we get what might be the finest episode of the entire series. “The Holiday” sees Vince take off on holiday to “wherever takes off at half-one and costs fifty quid”. This gives Lock a chance to spin out his brilliant routine about being snubbed on over-sold flights despite having a valid ticket, leading to splendid exchanges like this between Vince and an airline check-in clerk: VINCE - “…but I did it on purpose, to make a point… [turns to rest of passengers, hoping for vociferous support] …didn’t I? [No reaction from other passengers] Are you all Finnish? [turns back to check-in clerk] Typical Finns, never get involved...” CHECK-IN CLERK: “Sir, *I* am Finnish!” VINCE: “You’re not typical, you can’t shut up.”
Sadly, what with BBC Choice transmogrifying into BBC Three, and 15 Storeys High not being centred around a bunch of twentysomething housemates who love lager and swearing, the programme didn’t make it past just two series, despite having the scope to go on for much longer, especially as it came before Lock’s increased profile off the back of 8 Out Of 10 Cats, Live At The Apollo and TV Heaven, Telly Hell. It certainly didn’t help that when the show did make it to BBC Two, it was at a midnight-bothering slot on Sundays, which if it had a name, would be BBC Two’s “Comedy Shows We Desperately Regret Commissioning Zone”. A shame, but at least we’ve got twelve episodes of low-budget gold, all of which are available in a reasonably priced DVD boxset, or if you want to dip your toes into it first, on YouTube.