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Blog: Running Backwards, Writer: Dan

RunningBackwards: Review – Lead Balloon

With summer now well and truly underway, the sun is swaying, the trees are shining and all is well…  Unless you’re a resident of the UK, that is, in which case it most probably means you’re either knee deep in flood water or there’s a chance that the dreaded hosepipe ban has affected you. Though if you do get time in between washout barbeques or trips to the seaside this year, I highly recommend hopping onto BBC i-player and catching the latest series of a rather hidden gem of a programme called Lead Balloon.

While there are many comedy series I could recommend, few are quite as cynical as Lead Balloon. Much in the same vein as HBO’s swear-sational beast, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Lead Balloon follows “comedian” Rick Spleen (played brilliantly by Jack Dee) as he moves through the highs and lows of being a stand-up comedian in the industry. His best friend and in-programme writer Marty (played by Sean Power) only adds sarcasm to Spleen’s repertoire. As the latest – and potentially final – season drew to a close last week, I thought I’d check out “The End” and see if the series was continuing to live up to it’s predecessors. Trying to write about a season finale without using spoilers is a particularly difficult task, especially when it’s only a half-hour comedy programme. I shan’t mention any major plot points here, but I will mention some points from previous episodes.

This story is the 3rd installment of a trinity; Lead Balloon is known for having thin arcs that stretch the course of a series, but this is a three-part story that runs pretty much consecutively from start to finish. After Rick was held captive by a prisoner by the name of Donald – played to beautiful effect by Robbie Coltrane – Rick is praised as a hero for keeping his cool in the situation (and lying about what actually happened throughout). With his failing career now seemingly on the upturn, Rick is asked to host the “Brave Britain Award”, a ceremony in which bravery is, well… rewarded. It doesn’t take long, however, for Rick’s past to catch up with him, and he’s left with a dilemma in which not telling the truth could destroy not only his career, but also his life itself. I’d consider it one of the most brilliant moments, not only within this sitcom, but within comedy of the past decade.

Praise really must be given to Dee on this one; his uncaring and anti-social attitude, embodied by Spleen in this season, has really stood out as noteworthy – even though the character is designed to be unlikable, after the final moments of “The End” had gone by, I personally found it difficult not to feel for Rick and his situations in some way. The set up of the Brave Britain Awards from the start as a front for Rick Spleen to propel his career higher than it was before (his last height allegedly being the host of a shopping channel) is a devious yet cunning plot and I genuinely felt that Rick got both his comeuppance and redemption at the end.

Also worthy of praise would have to be the wonderful Michael, played with effortless talent by Tony Gardner. Since series one, Michael has been running through the core of Lead Balloon, slightly awkward and often – to some degree – overstepping the mark. Gardner’s panicky, yet fumbled concoction works beautifully for Michael, and in this season in particular, we have seen him move into the foreground more, revealing a slightly unsettling side behind his smile. If the series progresses, it would be interesting to see how that develops.

In addition to the main storyline and the fantastic cast, commendation should be given to the ongoing battle between Rick and his neighbour: since last season, Rick and his neighbours have constantly been crossing swords with each other over trivial things, and this time Rick seems to have overstepped the line. Blocking his neighbour’s plan for a safety ramp (which Rick states “would turn the street into Alton towers”) his neighbour decides to take matters into his own hands, cornering Rick moments before he’s due on stage. The resulting confrontation is an absolutely fantastic panic of a scene which, in my opinion, further demonstrates Dee’s talent as a writer.

Also glaringly apparent is the choice of soundtrack throughout the series; a wonderful selection of pieces varying from Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller’s fantastic opening song ”One Way Road”, through to the wonderful instrumental pieces scattered wonderfully throughout. The sounds of Lead Balloon are clearly thought out and placed at the right moment to maximise the humour in the scene. Another welcome touch are the “Sticky Note jokes” that regularly break up the scenes, providing one liners and all other manner of comebacks reflecting Rick’s on-screen situation.

The big question I’m left with is whether “The End” is really the end or not. As far as narrative goes, this would make a fantastic closure to what has been a rather brilliant show; watching from beginning to end, I personally would be hard-pressed to find a series that has been as entertaining throughout and yet as dry and witty as Lead Balloon. Not since the 90s with series like “The Day Today” and “Fist of Fun” has sarcasm and dry humour run so wildly through a series. (On a side note, I also highly recommend Fist of Fun and The Day Today; both brilliant pieces of British comedy.) I do hope that there is more to come from Dee and co, as this season has really stood out each time it airs an episode, and there’s certainly potential to expand the series further.

At the moment there are plans to release Lead balloon as a complete box set later this month, but till then, you can watch the complete series on BBC i-player, and a selection of the best moments are uploaded to the BBC’s YouTube account for a taster into the series. If you’re in need of a laugh or just want something charmingly dry to try out, I highly recommend Lead Balloon. It’s worth it.

By Dan our Running Backwards blogger.

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