Camping review: a gloriously bleak comedy masterpiece

Julia Davis is back – as writer, director and star – and her dark humour is given free rein in this rich and truthful comedy about not-so-happy campers. Plus: The Tunnel just isn’t The Bridge

Ooh good, camping, I like camping. But this Camping (Sky Atlantic) is by Julia Davis, of Nighty Night and Hunderby infamy; again she wrote, directs and stars. So probably not so happy camping.

The unhappiness comes quick and thick. First to arrive at the campsite are Robin (Steve Pemberton), whose 50th birthday is the reason for the trip, and Fiona (Vicki Pepperdine). She’s controlling, bitter, mean-spirited, sadistic; he’s a husk of a man, his soul pecked out of him. They have a young son, who shows, according to his mother, symptoms of homosexuality – weak will, facial bloating, etc. He wears a goldfish bowl over his head, I’m not entirely sure why, but I think it may be a desperate attempt by his mother to protect him from full-blown airborne gayness.

Next to arrive are weasily Kerry (Elizabeth Berrington) and Adam (Jonathan Cake), who is also celebrating a big anniversary: two years sober. Adam has a son, too – unwelcome, uninvited (by Fiona, whose meticulous military planning is being thrown into disarray) and teenaged. He does what teenage boys do: masturbate, all of the time.

That alone would make a pretty excellent unhappy party. But then Tom (Rufus Jones), recently separated from his wife, shows up with new lady Fay (Davis herself). He’s a bit of a dick, blind to his own ridiculousness; she’s a shallow nymphomaniac. They are at it constantly, publicly, inappropriately. Eurgh. Now the nightmare is complete.

Davis’s hallmarks are stamped all over the place. The sorry man who runs the campsite as well as looking after his elderly mother has some kind of speech disorder, and pauses mid-sentence. A stroke, perhaps? And that’ll be his mum’s commode he’s hosing down, and her enormous soiled pants he’s hanging on the line. Disability, bodily imperfection, bodily functions, check, check, check. Plus all the aforementioned sexing, inappropriateness, squirmy excruciatingness and bitter misery. Here is Davis’s sick mind laid bare, and her dark humour given free rein.

But – as with her previous comedy masterpieces – this is not just about pushing the boundaries of taste on TV. There’s also a richness and, yes, even a beauty in the language. A too-thin (in Fiona’s eyes) mattress is about the height of … a Weetabix. And that whimpering squeal coming from the outside toilet … “Could it be a hawk?” asks Kerry, knowing full well it’s the noise of stepson reaching self-induced orgasm. It takes a special kind of imagination to find links between mattress thickness and breakfast cereal, teenage rapture with raptor. Plus, it’s very funny.

There’s a truth about it, too. I know some Fionas – maybe not full Fionas, but semi-Fionas. Robins and Toms, too. I’m pretty sure there may be some of them in me. There’s truth in what happens to relationships and friendships when they go on for a long time and then go off, and in the sadness of caring for elderly parents. Like a lot of the best comedy, there’s loads of real sadness about the place (it may be because of the location, but I thought I saw some of Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May here). It’s craftily observed, beautifully performed, as well as typically, gloriously, boldly bleak. I’m not yet sure that it’s quite up there with Nighty Night or Hunderby, but there’s no better comedy around at the moment. The only pity is it’s on Sky.

As, I’m afraid, is The Tunnel: Sabotage (Sky Atlantic). While the first series of the British-French collaboration followed the Danish-Swedish original closely – to the point that there seemed little point – this one takes its own path. And a spectacular one it is, too: subterranean abduction, murder, trafficking, planes plunging into the sea like gannets, human flotsam washed up under Albion’s white cliffs. That hijacking – with the hijackers not actually on board, they just hack in remotely (hihacking?) – is going to provide new nightmares to any nervous flyers watching. Very little point locking the cockpit door now. Not that taking the Eurotunnel is any safer. The ferry is suddenly looking like the sensible option.

There’s an awful lot going on in this opener – too much perhaps, especially when compared with the stark, atmospheric Scandi-cool of the source material. (Basically I can’t quite forgive The Tunnel for not being The Bridge). But it is already intriguing, plus its exploration of the complex Anglo-French relationship, the entente not always totally cordial, adds something.

Interesting timing, too, the runup to the referendum. Perhaps you should wait to see just how cordial this joint investigation is before deciding which way to go.


Sam Wollaston

The GuardianTramp

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