Here's the first in a recurring series in which I look at a TV gem I hope hasn't been overshadowed. Let's start with Operation Good Guys (1997-2000, BBC2, written by Ray Burdis, Dominic Anciano and Hugo Blick).
Easily underestimated because of the cut-and-paste quality which was also very much part of its charm, OGG was unusual in its combination of blatant improvisation and the spoof docusoap format used more smoothly in People Like Us and The Office. The first series followed a crack police unit as they attempted to nail Smiler McCarthy (“The Teflon don - nothing sticks to him”), the second and third series saw them demoted to uniform. DI Beach (the brilliant David Gillespie), a twisted modern version of Captain Mainwaring, led the good guys. His number two, Sergeant Ray Ash, tenderly played by Ray Burdis, worshipped his Gov’nor so much he’d clearly fallen in love with him: a fabulous comic partnership that owed something to Mr Burns and Smithers, but had a hilarious and touching quality all of its own.
The rest of the Good Guys were armed response officers de Sade and Bill Zeebub, (Dominic Anciano and William Scully); the hapless “Bones” (Perry Benson); “Strings” (John Beckett), who harboured musical ambitions; Mark Kemp (Mark Burdis), the commissioner’s wet-behind-the-ears nephew; and Gary (Gary Beadle), an undercover officer with a drinking problem and a troubled marriage who had a particular knack for manic set-pieces. An episode where the team were sent for training by a survival expert who was slowly revealed to be a white supremacist, which was frightening for Gary as the only black member of the Good Guys, (“I’m not imagining it am I?” he asks the cameramen as the survival expert pursued him in a tank, “He doesn’t like black guys?”) was a highlight, as was an episode where the team, following a clandestine visit to a pub, are attempting to sneak back into their bunks at a police training centre but are let down by Gary’s drunkenness.
Sometimes the improvisation led them to dead ends: a gag about a cat turned into a hat isn’t very well-realised, and the less said about some of the lavatorial gags the better, and yet the joy is in how much gold they can produce from such scattershot methods. The cast’s enjoyment is crucial to this - they’re having the same thrill anyone would have performing comedy improvisation in front of a tv camera, and yet they somehow manage to take the audience with them. The skill of Anciano, Benson, Beckett and Mark Burdis’s performances lay in how in how they worked as a group, rather than layers of characterisation: their personalities were engaging and their characters were just distinctive enough to make them always recognisable. They worked like a Repertory company comfortable with each other’s sense of timing and improvisation, to provide a lively backdrop to the main two characters.
Beach and Ray gave the show its moments of genius. Beach stands alongside Homer Simpson, Alan Partridge, George Costanza and Eric Cartman as one of the finest comic creations of all time. The writers and performers came up with some unusual variations on the Mainwaring model (Beach had an off-duty penchant for transvestism, was obsessed with J. Edgar Hoover and still lived with his mother), while Gillespie’s unsurpassable performance was able to combine dignity with a genius for eruptions of demented clowning. He falls under the spell of a hypnotic cult leader (a splendid guest turn from Sean Pertwee) which leaves him wearing “the Horns of Herne”, and proclaiming an intention to “levitate around the room” , goes undercover to take part in a boxing match against a boxer he wrongly believes to have been bribed to take a fall (“How’s the action on your mother’s mattress?” he jeers as the fight commences), and gives in to cannibalistic impulses while on a desert island survival exercise.
The strength of Beach’s relationship with Ray makes the show far more than a string of daft gags and hastily improvised plots. The episode in series 1 where the team have a day off, and Beach and Ray go shopping, is as delightful and touching a piece of characterisation as any comedy show has achieved (It’s because of sincere, warm and unusual moments like this that we don’t tire of the unashamed moments where, for example, after the commissioner’s golf clubs have been mistaken for a suspicious bag in an airport and destroyed in a controlled explosion, Mark confronts an airport attendent - clearly a genuine one, not an actor - with the comedy “exploded golf clubs” prop and demands to know what happened).
But it’s those eruptions that we treasure. For an example of the joy this could bring the viewer, let’s consider this scene from Series 2. The Good Guys are in Spain for “Operation Zorro”, which is set up as a major bust but which Beach clearly regards as an opportunity for a holiday. He falls asleep in the sun, and is hideously sunburnt. We see him, pitifully draped in full Elephant Man gear, crutch-bound, his voice a piping whisper. He pleads with passing children not to be frightened of him. We then have a scene where the team are helping him into a ice-filled bath in his hotel room. He’s off-screen in the bathroom, while the camera stays with several of the Good Guys angling a mirror for him so that he can watch the TV. We hear the poor soul’s ludicrous whisper coming back from the bathroom, commenting weakly on the mirror “Yesss, that’s perrrfect…”. Dominic Anciano corpses, clearly not in character. Extracting the dignity from a dignified character is something important to comedy, but few shows have set their heroes up for a fall so gleefully and humiliated them so triumphantly. This episode has taken such a delight in what it can achieve by inflicting cruelty on DI Beach that it reaches a stage where we don’t begrudge the actors their own moments of mirth, or feel that it detracts from the overall effect. They’re laughing with us, and so they should.