There's a great story in Joking Apart and it's not only the one of marital breakdown as portrayed in two series of bittersweet comedy. Instead, there's the story of a man very unlike you and I. We may grumble about the lack of our favourite television shows on DVD but, for the most part, we do nothing about it. Perhaps the signing of an Internet petition, which is as useless a gesture as waving you hands in the general direction of Broadcasting House from as remote a place as you can imagine, is as much as any of us will do. But one man was so determined to see Joking Apart on DVD that he actually paid for the DVD rights and set about releasing both series on disc with such care as to shame many larger publishing companies. Should there ever be a museum devoted to DVD, Craig Robins deserves at least a small plaque for doing things his way.
"My wife left me!" Joking Apart stars Robert Bathurst as Mark Taylor, who begins each episode onstage telling an audience at a comedy club that his wife has just left him. Joking Apart is the story of Mark meeting Becky (Fiona Gillies) and marrying her after a short and torrid romance. It is also the story of the breakdown of their marriage and of the repercussions of that. Their friends experience feelings of guilt as they avoid taking sides. Mark struggles not to fall back into bed with Becky, to stop sending abusive letters to her new boyfriend, to avoid thinking constantly about sex and to avoid spending all day moping about his house in his dressing gown. But, more than that, he just struggles not to think about Becky every minute of every day. It's not so much getting on with life as finding that he doesn't have much of a life left.
An honest, bitter and funny sitcom, Joking Apart was written by Steven Moffat following the break-up of his own marriage. Rather than writing it in a linear fashion and thereby apportioning some blame to either party, Moffat cuts his sitcom across three timelines, Mark and Becky's meeting, their brief romance and marriage and the weeks and months following their break-up. Interspersed between these scenes, there are shots of Mark onstage in a comedy club, not so very different from, but at a similar time to, Seinfeld. Unlike Seinfeld, though, there's a sourness to the comedy in Joking Apart, perhaps more so than at the end of the first episode when, with her friends hiding in their flat for her surprise birthday party, a furious Mark has Becky admit to her affair and to being, "an adulteress!" Jokes prick at the drama but Moffat isn't afraid to reveal the anger and disappointment that comes from a failing marriage, least of all when Mark finally confronts Trevor (Paul Mark Elliott) and, in a scene that mixes comedy and cruelty, squashes an avocado in his face.
For that, though, this viewer was often quite uneasy with much of Joking Apart. Too often, it veers very close to the kind of farce of which there was so much of during my youth, the kind of comedy that isn't so very different from Terry Scott all of a fluster as he gets caught out of doors without his trousers on the same day that an attractive new woman is moving in next door. Here, reflecting changing times and a frankness that Terry and June would have blanched at, Mark sleeps with Becky's best friend Tracey (Tracie Bennett) only to then hide in the bathroom while Becky, Becky's new boyfriend and Tracey's husband Robert (Paul Raffield) all decide to come a-calling. Add in a subplot with a mobile phone and a shotgun and while Mark tries to remain quiet, Tracey runs up and down the stairs to placate friends and family. She even turns to that staple of the farce, an entirely pointless distraction, as a means to draw attention away from her mid-afternoon hanky-panky. Here, she gets down on her hands and knees and starts doing aerobics in her silk dressing gown. Other episodes have Mark running between Tracey in his bed, Becky on his couch and a drunken woman asleep in his bath, all of them demanding that he tell them that he loves them.
However, just as soon as you think you see how Joking Apart is playing out, Moffat's writing finds a line or a situation to turn the comedy around, often in a most unexpected way. Be it Mark finding a way, if not to win Becky back, then at least to jeopardise her relationship with Trevor or, in the final episode, to make things right again between Tracey and Robert, each episode offers a final and very funny surprise. For this viewer, that wasn't quite enough and while watching Joking Apart, my own conclusion was that Moffat's avoiding of blaming either Mark or Becky for the breakdown of their marriage was to avoid pointing out that both are as annoying as each other. The ludicrous situations don't help either as I couldn't help but think of the riot of coincidences, chance meetings and lost trousers that afflicted mainstream comedy of the seventies and eighties.
And yet that might not really be the point. It's difficult to like everything that comes our way but, equally, it does often feel as though one is cheating making a clear statement one way or the other by saying something like, "fans won't be disappointed." However, I feel no such qualms with Joking Apart. There really is no faulting what Replay DVD has done here, producing an outstanding release out of a show that few may remember. So perhaps not quite for this viewer but anyone with a fond memory of Joking Apart will have absolutely nothing at all to complain about as regards this DVD release. If Robins had a similar liking for Absolutely, I'd probably marry him.
The first thing to mention as regards the DVD release of Joking Apart is that it features subtitles. Unlike many releases, you could actually forgive Replay DVD had they not bothered with them but due to 2 Entertain's insistence, Craig Robins transcribed all six episodes on his own. No matter everything else, there's plenty of dedication there on its own given how many publishing companies still refuse to add subtitles to their releases.
Otherwise, Robins has done an outstanding job on readying Joking Apart for DVD. He describes much of this work on the Replay DVD website, including his writing-off of his original attempt to reduce the compression noise in the picture, his more successful and later attempt and his fixing of numerous drop-outs on the original videotape, and presents screenshots from before and after the restoration process. It's well worth a read as it gives an insight not only into how much Robins spent on producing this DVD but how much of his life he devoted to getting Joking Apart looking right.
Presented in its original 4:3 aspect ratio, Joking Apart looks much sharper than the average television show on DVD. The colours are also much richer and have obviously been fixed throughout to present a more uniform image while the picture is bright and clear. 1992 wasn't even so long ago but Robins' efforts have ensured that Joking Apart rarely looks flat, as might have been the case with so much of it shot on sparsely decorated sets. Mark's post-breakup flat, in particular, is as dingy and drab as any in which the curtains are only opened after midday but doesn't look very much worse than the rest of the series. However, the location shots, the dimly-lit scenes of Mark and Becky in bed and even the frantic running between bedroom and bathroom in the last two episodes all look very good indeed and barring the occasional moment when the series looks to have scrimped on its budget, the DVD presentation is excellent throughout.
The soundtrack is similarly good. Most importantly, everything sounds natural, even the audience laughter, which can often sound clipped and artificial. Instead, the stereo track is warm, the dialogue clear and while some of the slamming doors sound like they were made of balsa wood and sawdust, the sometimes flimsy sets still sound fine on the DVD. Once again, Replay DVD have cleaned up the soundtrack such that there's little background noise and even fewer obvious faults. The only real problem of note is that the occasional line can be obscured but that's more a result of all the breathless running about the sets than from any fault that lies with the DVD release.
Fool If You Think It's Over (19m37s): No matter its fairly short length or that some of its attempts to look interesting are unnecessary, this is a great little feature that presents the background to Joking Apart, its production and its cast appreciating what it is they achieved when few seemed particularly interested. Although Robert Bathurst and Tracie Bennett are good contributors, it's Steven Moffat who one wants to hear from most and he isn't at all disappointing, explaining his reasons for writing Joking Apart
Commentaries: On episodes one, three, four and five, Steven Moffat, Tracie Bennett, Robert Bathurst and Fiona Gillies have recorded commentaries and even taking into account the years that have passed between the making of Joking Apart and the release of this DVD, there is still a real sense of friendship and of a real liking for this show. The only sense of embarrassment comes from Tracie Bennett watching herself in various stages of nightwear and lingerie but the writer and cast are clearly enjoying both watching these episodes again and spending time in each other's company. Indeed, one of the more likeable aspects of these commentaries is hearing the contributors watching a series they probably haven't seen in years but really liking it. Moffat, in particular, sounds chuffed to bits at going back to Joking Apart once again.
When it comes to actually buying Joking Apart, inasmuch as I have included a link to Amazon, you would be better advised to go directly to the company's website and to buy it from them. Replay DVD have a home at replaydvd.co.uk and the specific address from which to buy series one of Joking Apart is here. Buy both series and they will give you a discount of £4. As if they haven't done enough good things already. (Last minute edit...Absolutely looks like it's going to be released on 28 April!)