Hard Cell review – Catherine Tate’s first attempt at a sitcom is lacklustre | Television


Nearly 20 years ago now, two feckless teenage girls ruled the comedy zeitgeist: Matt Lucas’s Vicky Pollard, an obnoxious young mother who once swapped one of her many children for a Westlife CD, and Catherine Tate’s ridiculously defensive working-class schoolgirl Lauren Cooper. Both had playground-friendly catchphrases – “Yeah but no but” and “Am I bovvered?”, respectively – and both starred in extremely popular sketch shows. Sketch shows that don’t seem quite so funny now.

That’s if they ever were. Rather than retroactive hand-wringing, the cultural reckoning (content warnings, removal of certain scenes, much social media discourse) currently being experienced by the grotesque strain of 00s comedy that included Little Britain and The Catherine Tate Show stems largely from how uncomfortable it made many feel at the time. These shows existed in an era when comedy was preoccupied with needling the boundaries of acceptability, and their creators understood that sending up the idea of prejudice – making fun of bigoted people, but also playing racism, misogyny, homophobia and classism for laughs – was precisely where transgression became tolerable (for TV executives, at least).

Although Tate’s generally very well-observed sketches weren’t as extreme as Little Britain’s blackface-heavy fare, certain streamers still require they be accompanied by disclaimers about racist and homophobic material. Many of those warnings apply to the rants of Tate’s foul-mouthed Nan character, something that makes the existence of The Nan Movie – roundly panned upon its release last month – seem downright bizarre.

Whoever thought that sensationally untimely concept was a good idea was clearly kidding themselves. But Hard Cell (Netflix), Tate’s new six-part mockumentary is a clean slate, and far less of a foregone conclusion. Set in a women’s prison, it sees the chameleonic actor play six different characters: Laura, a performatively woke governor fixated on fostering inmates’ creativity (and her own upcoming Ted talk on the subject); Marco, a vain, wise-cracking guard; plus, three prisoners and one of their mothers.

Tate is clearly in her element, disappearing wholesale into her creations (her transformation into Marco in particular is spookily convincing). The tone is brash, jolly and occasionally disturbing: Orange Is the New Black meets Summer Heights High. The question is not so much what could go wrong – this kind of unsubtle character comedy will never be foolproof – but whether there is any chance this might, just possibly, go right.

Unfortunately, there are problems from the start. The Office’s influence on British comedy may remain inescapable, but Laura’s deputy, Dean, (Christian Brassington) is far too obviously a knock-off Tim: perennially amused by his pompous boss’s stupidity, but also determined to spell out the subtext of every cynical grimace and drolly delivered prank. There is zero nuance here. The main trick he plays on Laura is referring to himself as her “number two”, prompting her to unwittingly repeat a series of double entendres about going to the toilet. It’s a joke that recurs so many times over the first few episodes that it starts to take on an almost surreal, hallucinatory quality. By the 500th occasion, you’re not sure whether to laugh or cry.

Repetition is the bedrock of Hard Cell, which is tied to Tate’s catchphrase-heavy heyday. The characters are largely solitary-joke skits in themselves. This is certainly true of Tate’s pathologically violent Scottish prisoner, Big Viv, who is obsessed with doing impressions of the Kardashian clan – all consisting entirely of the phrase “I’m excited”, delivered in exactly the same tone. Sometimes, though, incessant repetition does bear fruit. The show’s main storyline sees the actor Cheryl Fergison – AKA Heather from EastEnders – help the prisoners put on a musical, and every time Laura mistakes her for one of the inmates, it gets a little bit funnier.

The faux-enlightened (really, just irresponsible and self-important) governor aside, much of the comedy in Hard Cell feels distinctly – and often unpleasantly – retro. There are plenty of gross-out moments, such as the prison’s sewage system breaks and one agonisingly long masturbation mime. There is an over-reliance on lazy regional stereotypes, too: an Irish inmate, also played by Tate, who is creepily obsessed with her “mammy”, and “subtitled” Welsh prisoner, Sian, who Laura cannot understand – a lame and dispiriting gag that requires Sian to mumble her words and bizarrely mangle her intonation lest viewers decipher a single word she says.

Some of the material in Hard Cell will be a matter of taste – and with the gag rate as high as it is, a fair amount does inevitably land. But what is objectively lacking is an actual plot to chivvy the action along (“will the prisoners manage to stage their musical?!” doesn’t really cut it). Or rather, a plot that doesn’t wait until the last five minutes of the entire series to make itself known. The twists and developments in those final moments are genuinely shocking; this could have been a far more compelling show had they happened earlier on. Tate might be a veteran character comedian but Hard Cell is her first attempt at a sitcom – and thanks to a lacklustre narrative and an abundance of one-dimensional characters, it really shows.

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