There is an undoubted sense in which new Channel 4 series Chivalry, co-written by and co-starring Steve Coogan and Sarah Solemani, asks the question, “What if Alan Partridge were a successful Hollywood producer in the post-#MeToo era?” This is a question worth asking, especially when the answers are as good and funny and deft as they are here.
Coogan plays Cameron, a fairly (one imagines) typical film producer. He’s just coming out of another relationship with a twentysomething partner who was his assistant. He has slept with the leading lady he is now trying to persuade to reshoot scenes from his latest project. And he is just bright enough to know he’s being left behind as this strange, new landscape emerges, but not bright enough to know how to adapt to it. When Bobby (Solemani), the indie darling who has been brought in to detoxify the project poisoned by its European old-guard director, shouts “Sorry!” as she rushes off mid-conversation, because a call about her son comes through, he shouts back: “Never apologise for being a mother!” It’s the perfect amount of wrongness that Partridge made his own.
But, if, in the portrait of a man applying limited intelligence to matters of deep import, Chivalry plays to Coogan’s greatest strengths, it is still so much more. The programme grew out of the real-life sparring over feminism and the need for change that went on between Coogan and Solemani when they were working on the 2019 film Greed, as the wave of the #MeToo movement began to break against Hollywood’s shores. And the show is filled with complexity and nuance instead of didacticism or simple satirisation of past excesses and the overcorrections that come with the new era.
Bobby welcomes input from Cameron’s new assistant Ama (Lolly Adefope) on the sex scene she has to reshoot, but moves swiftly on when Ama reckons it would be empowering to have the leading lady (Lark, played by Sienna Miller) be “a squirter”. But she and Bobby unite later to embarrass Cameron as they rework the scene to make it sexy for women as well as men. “Let’s see her get her pussy ready!” says Bobby. “You want to see the vagina?” says Cameron, faintly – beautifully – appalled. “It’s not technically a vagina,” says Bobby. There’s a brief pause in which you can hear a thousand thoughts and questions, and resistance to asking any one of them crumbling, and Cameron says, with reluctant defiance: “What is it then?” Bobby and Ama school him thoroughly, basically bouncing his balls back and forth effortlessly between them. The phrases “muscular canal” and “longitudinal folds” are used while Cameron looks ever closer to death. It’s very funny.
Folded into the main theme – the labia minora to the labia majora of systemic sexism, if you will – is the tendency of power to corrupt. Cameron bemoans the introduction of compulsory intimacy supervisors on set. “Do you want to know why they’re compulsory now?” says Bobby. “Because the men who had the power to stop women being abused chose not to. The environment created was just so hostile and toxic and predatory and disgusting that intimacy supervisors were created to spell out what should be obvious.” “Right,” says Cameron. Written down, it sounds heavy, but delivered by Solemani, as light and dry as a touchpaper, it is hilarious at the same time as being immensely satisfying. I mean, isn’t that the absolute heart of the matter? That we – women, activists, legislators and so, almost infinitely on – are all working simply to enact everything that should be obvious?
Still, as the episodes and the reshoots go on, Bobby is driven to sideline intimacy supervisor Tatiana – a new focus for Cameron’s attentions and a wonderful turn from Aisling Bea – who drags down the whole production with her overindulgence of the male actor (“Would it help if you thought of your characters as animals?”). He in turn doesn’t feel safe during the sex scene with Lark, who is herself eyerolling so hard at this new world order that she almost falls off the bed. Bobby tells Cameron to distract Tatiana so she can get the actor to undress. “I don’t care how that sounds.”
Chivalry is a quality, precision-engineered piece of work by a duo with extraordinary chemistry, both on- and off-screen, in the writers’ room. Add Adefope and her immaculate timing (and delivery almost as dry as Solemani’s), Wanda Sykes as the manipulative powerhouse studio executive, and occasional impeccably daft cameos from the likes of Paul Rudd (“One of the most unpleasant people I’ve ever met,” says Cameron) and, unlike any of Cameron’s former assistants and most of his leading ladies, you have no cause for complaint.