One thing Remainers and Leavers will agree on is that Brexit’s comedy dividend has thus far proved negligible. That underwhelming state of affairs continued with Matt Berry’s pleasingly surreal but ultimately chortle-deficient Road to Brexit (BBC One).
Berry, and Father Ted co-creator Arthur Mathews, went to lengths to be equal opportunities offenders in their faux documentary survey of Britain’s uneasy relationship with the European Union. Leavers were skewered as fusty Flat Earthers terrified of Continentals and their funny cooking. Remainers were mocked as on-message virtue signallers who approved of refugees but wouldn’t have one near the house.
Alas, in their determination to dispense bloody noses to all sides, Berry and Mathews – whose previous collaborations include the fabulously wacky Toast of London – neglected to pack much in the way of jokes.
Instead, the one-off broadcast, marking the approach of the original Article 50 deadline of March 29, leaned heavily on Berry’s inane comedy persona. He has carved a career essentially playing the same dazzlingly unctuous weirdo over and over. “Rogue historian” Michael Squeamish was a variation on that theme.
Squeamish’s forte was negotiating the English language as if recently arrived from the moons of Jupiter. Thus, David Cameron’s last name was pronounced “Cameroon” and Squeamish had fun stressing the second syllable of Middlesborough. These bonkers flourishes weren’t unfunny exactly yet the mirth was dispensed in micro-doses.
Deeper insights into Brexit were notable for their absence. An interview with a Labour politician portrayed by Felicity Montagu (Lynn from Alan Partridge) did essentially accuse Jeremy Corbyn of vacillating nincompoopery (the MP recounted Corbyn spending the first several minutes of his address to a Remainer rally tucking into a choc ice). And Conservative Leaver Tony Braxton (Alex Macqueen) was predictably painted as a menacing toff, squatting in the dark.
Sepia archive footage elsewhere depicted suspicious Brits from times past struggling to name anywhere in Europe. Squeamish later popped around to a pub to hear punters (Simon Greenall and Ann Mitchell) accuse other footballing nations of setting out to deliberately win the World Cup instead of England And there was lots of Berry walking along the Thames loftily declaiming to the camera.
The satire was directed more at the Simon Schama school of television historian than at Brexit itself. And though these punches landed – golly, those real-life grandees are full of themselves, you thought – opinions will differ as to to whether a send-up of bombastic documentary hosts merited 30 minutes of prime time.
Berry is an accomplished absurdist, superb at delivering a heightened version of himself. He can carry off stream-of-conscious comedy, too, as demonstrated by an interview with two smug Remainers (Phil Wang and Natasia Demetriou) where he sported the bruised after-effects of a “pony stampede”.
But he doesn’t tell jokes so much as side-step the joke with a self-satisfied eye-brow waggle. That goes down deliciously on Toast of London. Here it felt like a shtick in search of a purpose.