REVIEWS: Full English/Secret State

It’s a Channel 4 love-in! Mouthbox checks-out their new cartoon Full English as well as political drama Secret State starring Gabriel Byrne.

Channel 4’s new animated sitcom has been billed as a rival to US shows The Simpsons and Family Guy. But the creators of Full English have abjectly failed to grasp what makes these shows, and the equally popular South Park, so sharp, funny, and well-directed.OK, they’ve weakly cloned a few of Family Guy’s more recognisable characters, but they’ve utterly failed to clone the skill and expertise behind the show’s execution. As a nation, we love American cartoon series. We pay millions to the US to import them. And yet our own comedy writers appear to learn nothing from them. Family Guy has pace. It’s crammed with physical action and visual gags. It effectively uses the fact that it’s an animated series – creating storylines and gag set-ups on a huge scale. You can do anything you like in an animated series. Homer Simpson has been into outer space. Peter Griffin has fought with a giant chicken across five continents. Stewie and Brian have gone back in time and battled the Nazis.

In contrast, Full English is small-scale, unimaginative, unbearably slow, and seems to consist mainly of close-ups of talking heads in the living rooms of terraced houses. Even in the 1960s, the Americans were teaching us the skills we needed to make great cartoon series. Top Cat, The Flintstones… these fast-moving, pacy shows laid the foundations for Family Guy and The Simpsons. Seth MacFarlane and Matt Groening watched and learned. We didn’t.

Alex Scarfe (son of legendary caricaturist Gerald) as well as Jack and Harry Williams have written an unfunny script that could just as easily have been shot with actors in a studio set. They’ve effectively penned a live action sitcom and then handed it to some animators and said, “Make it move.” And frankly, the animation looks cheap, drab and shoddy.

South Park has its finger on the pulse. It taps into the zeitgeist – sharply satirising what’s going on in the real world in the present day. Full English churned out a lame parody of Britain’s Got Talent – a series that’s been running on UK television for five years – picking up on the fact that Simon Cowell tends to cash in on contestants’ sob stories. Sorry guys, but I’m afraid the whole of Britain has been taking the piss out of that since the summer of 2007. What are you going to send up next week? Harold Wilson and the miners’ strike?

Richard Ayoade (The IT Crowd) and Kayvan Novak (Facejacker) are the two main voice talents, and they, at least, add a touch of class to this deeply flawed and disappointing project.

The people who commissioned this series clearly knew very little about animation, and they have subsequently spent millions of pounds of Channel 4’s money making a cartoon series that is not fit to lick the boots of Seth MacFarlane or Matt Groening.

As for their new political drama…

We find ourselves in a fictional chemical plant, not dissimilar to Buncefield Oil Depot, which is destroyed in a huge ball of fire which takes out the local village. The following day a fictional Prime Minister, not dissimilar to David Cameron, is killed when his private jet explodes over a fictional ocean, not dissimilar to the Atlantic.

The fictional Prime Minister’s private secretary has a cousin who lives in a town in Bedfordshire not dissimilar to Luton. He is probably an Islamic fundamentalist. Or something similar.

Irish deputy prime minister Tom Dawkins (played by Gabriel Byrne’s eyebrows) is thrust into the top job. He is a quiet, reluctant hero, controlled puppet-like by Charles Dance – a smooth, handsome Chief Whip who looks far too charming to be rude to a policeman outside Number 10.

Meanwhile, an investigative journalist (played by ballsy Hebburn mum Gina McKee) appears to have already found out who has done what to whom and why.

Government spin, the underlying threat of terrorism, industrial cover-ups – all of these elements were crammed into the first two minutes of Channel 4’s new four part conspiracy thriller Secret State. While stretching credibility to its absolute limit, the overall effect was nonetheless quite intriguing.

The plot was further stirred by Sylvestra Le Touzel and Rupert Graves as two slimy cabinet ministers trying to fill the power void left by  the PM’s untimely death. There seemed to be so much going on in this fictional version of Number 10 that Nick Robinson (the political correspondent who looks like Little Bear out of Bo’ Selecta) would be kept busy around the clock.

Something that has always annoyed me about film drama is that when an important piece of news comes on the telly, the central characters always just listen to the very top of the story and then immediately switch the TV off. This simply doesn’t happen in real life. If you heard in the Sky News headlines that the Prime Minister’s plane had plunged into the Atlantic, you wouldn’t switch off the TV before hearing the rest of the story. This actually happened twice in Secret State, and was compounded when the PM, after being told another piece of earth-shattering news on the telephone, hung up straight away without waiting to hear the rest of the story.

I’ll give Secret State another go next week. But I can’t promise that I won’t switch it off before the…


Self-proclaimed frog prince of the TV bloggers, Mouthbox has worked as a senior web editor at the BBC, a comedy writer for Channel 4 and as a producer for Channel 5. He loves to write about himself in the third person.

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