I’m always excited to hear about a fresh comedy venture, and so the opportunity to preview new online sitcom, Staff Room, was not going to be passed up. The situation comedy has gone through some interesting developments over the past twenty years. Its liberation from the traditional four wall studio sets and laughter tracks during the late nineties and early noughties in ground breaking examples such as Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash’s The Royle Family, and Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s The Office, demonstrated the genre’s potential to move away from the codes to which it would generally adhere. With Extras, we even saw traditional sitcom parodied through a meta-narrative in When the Whistle Blows. These shows paved the way for looking at sitcom differently, and while recent offerings such as Mrs. Brown’s Boys and others appear to herald a return to tradition both in setting and content, it’s refreshing to see from Staff Room that innovation persists.
Available exclusively online, and comprised of five episodes of between 8 and 10 minutes long, the sitcom revolves around the teaching staff of a Northern Secondary School, and in particular best friends Ian Butterworth (Ryan McDermott), head of film and media, and Julian Wentworth-Farlington (Adam Brown), art teacher, who spend a considerable amount of time getting into scrapes and failing to dodge their arch-nemesis Principal Kipling (Brian Capron) despite their best efforts and those of Ian’s love interest, the delightful drama teacher, and Kipling’s favourite, Lucy Lucas (Zoe Lister).
The series is written and produced by Ryan and Adam, both from Manchester, and best friends in real life. Ryan, who also directs the series, and is a winner of the BBC 3 Funny Hunt award, and Adam, who DJs on Capital FM, are clearly a talented pair, and the series is a credit to both who also offer brilliant comic performances throughout. Their onscreen relationship is believable, compelling, and very humorous.
Brian Capron, well known for playing the role of “Norman Bates with a briefcase,” Richard Hillman, in Coronation Street, shines as panto villain Principal Kipling, a superficial, arrogant, self-perceived master manipulator whose vendetta against both Ian and Julian, and attempts to exert control over any situation possible, make for hilarious viewing. There are glimmers of Hillman’s menace, but its exaggeration in a comedy context is a great source of humour.
Wildseed Comedy invested in Staff Room after a pilot episode went viral on social media racking up over 30,000 hits. Indeed, while the series is designed to be viewed on phones or tablets in keeping with its origins, my chosen medium was television to which it transfers very well. However, there is no doubt viewers will enjoy regardless of how it’s consumed.
Sam Delaney, Editor in Chief at Comedy Central UK, confirming that this is the first time they’ve put a sitcom on the website, explains “We’re doing so because Staff Room is original, very funny, brilliantly written, stupendously performed and, in terms of production values, ten times more polished than the usual stuff we put on the site. Ryan and Adam are major talents who I’m assuming will soon be so successful that they will never talk to me ever again.”
The strong supporting cast includes Rupert Hill, who Coronation Street fans will recall played the part of Jamie Baldwin; Tina Malone and Rebecca Atkinson (Shameless); Alice Barlow (Benidorm); Archie Kelly (Phoenix Nights); and a cameo from Pat Sharp as himself. With episodes of this length, it’s important that performances are strong, and the casting choices happily ensure this is the case, as they greatly complement the leading roles and what is an already solid work.
One might envisage that the short format could be something of a challenge for any programme maker, but this has certainly not posed any problems for Ryan and Adam who have managed to pack an impressive amount of content into each episode, and have succeeded in appropriating all the great features of a modern sitcom, including a grounded thread of continuity across the entire series. In fact, the depth of character is such that I found it quite remarkable how well I felt I knew each of them after just a few minutes. Ryan and Adam have embraced the episode lengths by ensuring they are suitably fast paced and snappy, and this, combined with great performances, and a sharp script which offers genuine laugh out loud moments, makes this very enjoyable viewing and is a promising indicator of the quality to be found in fresh, new comedy and the continued potential for innovation in the genre.
Staff Room is available to view here as well as on the Comedy Central website and Wildseed Comedy channel.
By Emma Hynes
(A shorter version of this review was posted on the Coronation Street Blog on Monday 17 November 2014)