I wasn’t a fan of Green Wing, the semi-improved comedy based on scripts that were a hodgepodge of jokes, sketches and sight gags gathered from a hive-mind of writers. It was an interesting way to produce a single-camera sitcom, and one that clearly found an audience, but I found its scattergun approach quite tiring. Many of Green Wing‘s writers are behind Channel 4′s new comedy offering Campus, which won’t escape “Green Wing in a university” branding, because that’s exactly what it is. The uni’s motto is even “with wings”.
“Publication, Publication, Publication” was a 70-minute extension of the half-hour Comedy Showcase pilot from 2009 (including adverts), which basically means there was an awful lot of filler. But this filler is exactly what Campus thrives on, as it’s really just an extended sequence of sketches and non sequiturs. Jonty De Wolfe (Andy Nyman) is the tyrannical vice chancellor of Kirke University, with ambitions for expansion inspired by the success of mousy mathematics lecturer Imogen Moffat (Lisa Jackson), who’s written a book called “The True Story Of Zero”. Jonty pressures English professor Matt Beer (Joseph Millson) into writing a similarly successful book, but the inveterate womanizer is too easily distracted to comply. Meanwhile, accommodations officer Nicole Huggins (Sara Pascoe) accidentally paid the entire staff twice, ruining the day for accountant Jason Armitage (Will Adamsdale), who’s tasked with trying to recoup the money.
I have to admire the verve and ambition of Campus, which is a cornucopia of ridiculous, surreal and offensive moments. Unfortunately, it’s a victim of its own style and delivery. There’s simply not enough plot and, more crucially, no likeable characters. And those that are at least sympathetic (Jason, Imogen) aren’t central enough, as the emphasis is on the larger-than-life Jonty and the misogynistic Matt. Everyone’s so outlandish that you begin to crave some normalcy, if only to add some texture to what becomes a pretty exhausting show to sit through. Quite why they decided to expand the nimble Showcase pilot to over an hour is beyond me, as Campus starts to drag after 30-minutes and a few storylines get lost. In the original pilot, the accounting error was a key part of the storyline, but here it’s just one of many, many things vying for your attention.
The highlight is Andy Nyman, who’s fabulous as the insane and distasteful Jonty; a shark’s grin wrapped in a goatee, with a hairstyle that’s half Regency wig, half bird’s nest. He stalks the episode, sometimes in a green dress, like a comedy T-Rex, devouring every scene he’s in. Whether he’s trying to communicate with Indian students by speaking gobbledygook, encouraging a teenager to commit suicide, r shouting at passersby with a loudspeaker, or waggling his tongue for an uncomfortable long time in an employee’s face, you simply can’t take your eyes of Nyman whenever he’s around. He’s David Brent meets Charles Manson. It’s just a shame his performance is just one of many bonkers turns, because there’s so much weirdness it almost becomes suffocating.
With eight writers involved in every script, Campus suffers from a “too many cooks” problem. What this show needs is less random chaos and more careful orchestration, together with scenes that aren’t always so willfully strange. There’s a vibrancy to Campus that can be intoxicating, and it has some memorable moments, but it’s too obnoxious and unhinged to provide a satisfying experience. If episodes were cut in half and started to develop the characters beyond extreme archetypes (the timid wallflower, the ditzy admin girl, the nerdy accountant, the womanizing teacher), there’s clear potential in the premise. The cast are talented, it has visual flair, and its bravery can be quite bracing, but it needs to exercise some restraint and subtlety. Or at the very least learn to marshal its craziness more effectively, because you need some ebb and flow.
WRITERS: Robert Harley, James Henry, Oriane Messina, Gary Parker, Victoria Pile, Richard Preddy, Fay Rusling & Christian Sandino-Taylor
DIRECTOR: Victoria Pile
CAST: Andy Nyman, Joseph Millson, Lisa Jackson, Jonathan Bailey, Will Adamsdale, Sara Pascoe, Dolly Wells & Katherine Ryan
TRANSMISSION: 5 April 2011, Channel 4, 10PM
You can read more reviews at my blog, Dan’s Media Digest.