It’s worth prioritising The Curse just to hear the voice Tom Davis does in it. He has written himself the part of hulking weirdo Mick, a grimy, pie-stealing cartoon of a man whose tank tops are four inches too short and whose anecdotes about sparring with George Foreman (“They call me into the ring, my old Aristotle’s going like a rabbit’s nose … you ever been kicked by a ’orse?”) are clearly fraudulent. But the voice! A fruity back-of-the-throat baritone with loose consonants bouncing off a lolling lower lip and splashing everywhere, like a cockney Bernard Ingham – it’s a thick extra layer of funny on an already very funny script, and it’s the sound of a man at the top of his character-comedy game.
Davis and his long-term collaborator, co-writer/director James De Frond, are in a run of form that suggests they can do just about anything. After the cleverly marshalled absurdity of innovative BBC Three meta-comedy Murder in Successville, they skipped through one series of spy spoof Action Team on ITV2 before landing on BBC One with the perfectly formed suburban sitcom King Gary. Now, still insisting on launching each new project via a different channel and in a different genre, they switch to Channel 4 for period crime caper The Curse.
Set in a gorgeously rendered 1980s east London – a place of magnolia Formica, peeling paint on corrugated fencing, some beautiful painted signage and pints served in thick, dimpled glass mugs – The Curse tracks a gang of idiots as they conceive, plan and execute a heist for which they are drastically under-qualified. At the end of episode one, the incident that gives the rest of the series its narrative impetus takes place. Before that, this little world is lovingly constructed.
Davis’s character Big Mick is merely an ensemble player. First we meet cafe owners Tash (Emer Kenny) and Albert (Allan Mustafa): her in the kitchen doing all the work; him front of house, forgetting customers’ orders and failing entirely to assert himself when visited by imposing local villain Joey (Abraham Popoola). Then Tash’s brother Sidney (Steve Stamp) brings news of his employment as a security guard in a warehouse where booty worth as much as £50,000 is apparently begging to be nicked. Over a few jars, Albert, Sidney and Mick, along with their other mate Phil (Hugo Chegwin), decide to go for it.
For viewers who did not see People Just Do Nothing on BBC Three, it must look as if The Curse has somehow surrounded Davis with an array of skilled unknowns, all of them unfeasibly brilliant at playing deluded weaklings whose bravado cannot hide how adorably ineffectual they are. Albert is smart but too timid to speak up for himself, while Sidney means well but is a fragile man (“Yes, I can do pressups! I do 50 a week!”) who does not know when to stay stumm. Phil, meanwhile, is a wannabe gangster who entirely lacks the necessary air of authority. He’s got himself a trilby, but his boss Joey keeps knocking it off his head, and his effort to rebrand himself as “the Captain” hasn’t caught on. “No one calls you that, Phil,” Tash wearily tells him. “You can’t just give yourself a nickname.”
Those who did see People Just Do Nothing, who know that Mustafa, Stamp and Chegwin all wrote and starred in it together as deluded weaklings running a shambolic pirate radio station, will know that the trio have spent five seasons of their show honing the dynamic that powers any number of great sitcoms: men whose opinion of themselves is hopelessly at odds with obvious reality. Davis, himself a master at offsetting his chunky 6ft 7in frame by playing fretful softies, has spotted kindred spirits and formed some kind of sitcom supergroup. The scene with the four of them around the pub table is just sublime: while the People Just Do Nothing trio do their finely calibrated routine about blokes who are endlessly peeved by their friends’ foibles while being unable to see their own, Davis enjoys himself hugely as the random factor Mick. “I’m in! I’m all over it! Fifty thousand grand!”
In its execution, though, The Curse is less traditional sitcom and more swinging Britflick, with De Frond deploying kinetic split screens, shiny old cars rolling vertically through shots, and Camille Coduri as a reflective, all-seeing narrator. There’s a lovely nod to the old Reservoir Dogs/Taking of Pelham One Two Three motif where criminals assign themselves colours – based on snooker balls, in this case – and all the right tunes by the Cult, Talk Talk, Talking Heads and the The on the soundtrack. Davis and De Frond seem primed to move on to movies before too long – with The Curse, they continue to make fabulous TV comedy look easy.