On the Corner: Early Doors

September 12, 2004

As you’ll have noticed, making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got. Taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot. Wouldn’t you like to get away? Sometimes, you want to go where everybody knows your name. And they’re always glad you came. And cops sit skiving in the backroom, necking free drinks, selling forged notes and laughing like loud, lechy drains.

If push came to shove, Cheers might still edge out Early Doors as the greatest ever pub-set sitcom, but it would be a very close thing. By the end of its first series last year, however, Craig Cash’s show had already come closest to achieving the condition aspired to by Cheers‘ theme song; it felt less like watching TV than actually popping out to your local. (Talking of theme songs, Cash’s still proudly wears Roddy Frame’s flawless “Small World,” a tune that circles sad-happily, then soars modestly off into the galaxy, scattering stardust).

Directed by Adrian Shergold, Early Doors’ painstakingly wrought environment wrapped so completely around you, it became almost like sitting in a corner of The Grapes, the exquisitely dingy-cosy streetcorner establishment where all the action, if that word can be applied, took place. The only drawback was that, after a while, it felt wrong to be watching it without having a drink. Did I say drawback?

It was so perfectly handled, that, while desperate to revisit, I was worried that another series might ruin it. And the first episode wavers just a little, perhaps because, as well as putting his big mug in front of the camera – able to look sly or gormless, he has as timeless a comedy face as Stan Laurel – Cash has also taken over directing. Soon, however, all is well. By next week’s episode, which boasts the greatest moment yet from lazy cops Phil and Nige (James Quinn and Peter Wight) – not to spoil it, but I’ll just say Bob Marley – even the smoke clouds which perpetually drift the pub seem to be moving under Cash’s direction.

In case you missed it first time around, the second series begins with a little “Previously on Early Doors”, which perfectly recaps where we had got to. What happens in the sequence is this: nothing.

Well, not exactly true. What happens is this: bathed in the kind of fleeting, late-afternoon light that picks out the dust motes dancing in the air, The Grapes is empty, save for the barman, Ken (the magnificent John Henshaw, who should have been knighted for his work in The Cops), leaning on the bar, and, sat nearby at his usual, mean little table, steadfast regular Old Tommy (the magnificent, damn it, they’re all magnificent, Rodney Lichfield, who wears his face as though he’s just finished sucking an old cloth he found under the sink).

A second stretches out, until you hear the silence fizzing around them. Then, this devastating event: Ken picks a crisp from the packet before him, and says, “You want a crisp, Tommy?”

An eternity is born and dies. Kingdoms rise and crumble. The world spins through infinity. Then, finally, Tommy replies, “No,” sounding, as usual, annoyed by the question.

And that’s it. This side of that one about the tramps hanging around for the Godot guy, there has never been a comedy so completely about nothing moments, the idle glue that, thankfully, makes up most of our lives. Seinfeld used to bill itself “a show about nothing,” but compared with Early Doors, it had the flash, incident and bustle of a 1930s sci-fi serial.

Cash, of course, used to co-write The Royle Family, a comedy closer to documentary than most things given the name on TV at the moment. Early Doors (co-written with Phil Mealey, who also plays Duffy, pasty-faced philanderer-philosopher, and Robot Wars fan) comes directly out of that. Again, it’s concerned with what happens between a small number of people, choosing to kill time together in the same small place; and, again, while people crack fantastic gags, most of the laughs come simply from seeing exquisitely written characters and situations that you recognise from life. It’s no rehash of the Royle formula. Rather, it is, precisely, a refinement.

The humour can often revolve around things like urinals getting blocked with fag ends, or the strange, beloved couple of weird anoraks in the corner, Eddie and Joan (the untouchable Mark Benton and the unfathomable Lorraine Cheshire), announcing they’re treating themselves to “a Number Two.” It’s difficult to figure out quite how the programme manages to do this without lapsing into easy, generic, mean-spirited laughs, but it does. There’s no sentiment, but there is huge love for every character. This programme is chopped-up eggs in a cup for the soul.

And, for all its nothing, Early Doors does have plots, but they move at the pace icebergs used to, before global warming. Last year, the main event was the lead up to the moment when Ken’s adopted, glowing, daughter, Mel (Christine Bottomley), went to meet her real father. You barely noticed at first, but, by the end of the series, simply from the desperate love Henshaw tried to keep hidden in his gaze, the programme had dammed-up a reservoir of emotion. At the last moment, Cash pulled the stopper and let it wash over you with a force that knocked you sideways.

That story continues in this series, and there’s an impending disaster, with news that the brewery are considering closing The Grapes if takings don’t improve. In the meantime though, sadness: as we begin, there has been a death…