People under a certain age would be forgiven for not knowing Peter Kay – a man that ten years ago was at his absolute pinnacle with multiple TV shows, stand-up tours and a Number One single, but then virtually disappeared in a self-imposed hiatus.
At that peak, despite being one of the driving forces behind stand-up becoming the arena-selling behemoth that it is today, Kay’s comedy was regularly being dismissed as too obvious and kitsch due to overexposure on our screens.
But a decade on Kay is back, first with a Phoenix Nights live show, and now with new series Peter Kay’s Car Share. Billed as the first mainstream BBC show to air fully on iPlayer before regular TV, the corporation have certainly tried to deflect the hype away from their big name signing, reducing the usual immediate social media judgement that is now the norm with a new show.
Despite having his name preceding the title (not purely a new ego trip – Phoenix Nights and Britain’s Got the Pop Factor got the same treatment), all involved have also been very quick to point out this isn’t just Kay’s creation, but more of a vehicle – excuse the pun – for him to return to our screens.
Indeed, in what seems almost a meta Kay joke reminiscent of his ‘man of the people’ stand-up routines, Car Share is actually the writing of two business consultants, Paul Coleman and Tim Reid, the latter from Solihull.
The premise is simple – two very different people, supermarket assistant manager John Redmond (Kay) and promotions rep Kayleigh Kitson (Sian Gibson) are thrown together in a car share scheme to and from work everyday, forced to converse while confined to the tiny space over the long journey. It’s a fairly rudimentary set-up, but you could say that about some of the very best comedies.
Coleman himself confessed to pitching the show largely due to its economic set-up, an idea he got while watching the excellent Roger & Val Have Just Got In, itself starring just Dawn French and Alfred Molina contained within a small family home.
Recognising that the script needed work he then turned to Kay (a man he had worked with in the past) for advice, and soon the comedian became heavily involved – first taking the lead role then getting the show commissioned, before convincing the BBC to let his long-term friend Gibson take a starring role regardless of her relative lack of TV experience.
Despite being Coleman and Reid’s script, Kay’s influence is heavy. Rewriting the lead part as a slightly stuck-in-the-past 40 year old man (it was originally written for a 20-something), allows him to bring in his usual kitsch and throwback references throughout, including the show’s true third character – the local radio parody ‘Forever FM’ that plays in the background on the car stereo.
The mix of the two worlds – first-time writers and a huge star’s already well-honed act – makes Car Share incredibly well balanced. Indeed the slight naivety of Gibson’s acting gives a genuine chemistry between her and Kay that is the essence of the show’s charm, often seen the most through the more improvised parts of their dialogue.
It should be said though that while his co-star is somewhat finding her feet, Kay is firmly cementing his place as one of our finest comedy actors. It’s very easy to dismiss him – and many did – as just a base-level observational comedian, but you only have to remember his early Channel 4 work, notably That Peter Kay Thing, to see real heart to his performances.
It’s no surprise that Kay list Ronnie Barker as one of his main influences on his career – like the great man, he performs naturally with genuine hidden depth and character, just as effortlessly as he shouts “Garlic Bread?” to an audience of thousands.
Indeed, aside from the more obvious touchstones like Marion and Geoff and Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, the main influence on Car Share is Porridge, and its touching but never expressed relationship between the two protagonists forced together in a confined space, beautifully acted between the lines by Barker and Richard Beckinsale.
Of course though, you need a contrast to this delicacy, and Kay certainly knows how to offer it. From more broad gags about dogging, farting and Beyoncé, to straight-out slapstick falls, there’s certainly something for everyone.
You’ll also find some less obvious gems hidden away throughout. Many shop signs, posters and of course the ubiquitous Forever FM with its retro songs and terrible adverts, are very reminiscent of Phoenix Nights with their tongue-in-cheek humour – the latter being somewhat of a spin-off from Kay’s earlier Chorley FM.
That’s not to say it always works though. The opening episode actually offers the worst of the gags, starting with a laboured effort as John gets increasingly frustrated with his Sat Nav, followed by Kayleigh accidentally throwing her urine sample over him. Thankfully, it’s mostly uphill from there.
At times, when they step out of the car it does go a bit more kitsch, and while not a bad thing, you slightly wish they’d had the courage of their convictions and stuck purely to the confined format. Episodic daydream song sequences feel particularly shoe-horned and disconnected – more of an excuse for Kay to be silly, much in the same way with Nick Helm did with the otherwise excellent Uncle for BBC3.
Aside from these minor glitches though, Car Share is a masterpiece of juxtaposition. The gags are laugh-out-loud snorters at times and the natural humour in the two lead characters genuinely funny, while all the time a subtly simmering romance between the two fleets in and out.
A second series is surely on the cards, and when it does it will be like welcoming back old friends. As for Peter Kay, his reunion with the small screen is complete – it’s like he’s never been away.