What criticisms I made over the first series of Joking Apart earlier today are just as valid, perhaps even more so, for this second series. While the first had the usual married-couple farces of everyone thinking their spouses were sleeping with everyone else, of hiding in the bathroom wearing nothing but a sheet and of thinking that the fourth place at a dinner table was for you and not for your ex-wife's new partner, the tone of this one is not so very different. Indeed, when the first episode opens with Mark (Robert Bathurst) trying to buy a porn mag only to find his purchase interrupted by the arrival in the same newsagent of his ex-wife Becky (Fiona Gillies), her best friends Robert and Tracey (Paul Raffield and Tracie Bennett) and a young but very inquisitive boy, one feels as though we're back on very familiar ground.
What makes Series 2 of Joking Apart slightly different is that it has the feel of writer Steven Moffat going for broke as regards the comic situations. No more is there the suggestion of Becky thinking of someone else while making love to Trevor (Paul Mark Elliott), we get to hear her cry out a different name while Mark hides under the bed, Tracey climbs up an outside ladder and Robert crashes in through the bedroom door. Similarly, Robert might well be the same very odd chap that he was in the first series but here we get to see just how peculiar he really is, dressed as a maid, blindfolded and serving his mistress as a slave. Granted, going for broke probably wasn't really the case as much as Steven Moffat's writing and story structure getting better but there's more of an edge to this series and it's really all the better for it.
However, rather than simply praising Series 2 of Joking Apart for the risks that it takes (and which pay off handsomely), for the better scriptwriting and for more assured performances, it should be enough to say that this is the better series for simply being that much funnier. As revenge for Bathurst showing up late at the original press launch of Joking Apart, Moffat vowed to write an episode in which he would spend the entire thirty minutes naked. In the fourth episode here, he is forced to do just that, albeit wearing a dressing gown at times, and it works, finding plenty of laughs in the situation, in the lines and in Bathurst's attempting to welcome a new neighbour who had to move on account of the trouble she had with a flasher. There are plenty more moments to savour in this series with the fun of it being the viewer discovering them.
What you feel most about this series is, as it ends, that Steven Moffat was really getting to grips with the characters and what situations he could test them. That's not uncommon in comedy series, although it's not specific to that particular television genre, where it takes a series or two to really hit form. Given how much this series is an improvement over the first, there's always the feeling that a third series would have been even better but with the BBC cancelling it, it was never to be. Again, nothing unusual in that either but the shame is that Series 2 of Joking Apart ends so well that this viewer, and I would imagine a lot of others, would have been happy to see what became of Mark and Becky. What with Moffat going to Hollywood to write for the Spielberg/Jackson Tintins, we may never know.
What I wrote about the first series of Joking Apart is just as pertinent here, probably even more so. Even in the opening montage that prefaces the DVD menu, the picture is slightly sharper, more detailed and has the edge on a uniformity of colour that the first series got very close to but which wasn't quite perfect. This is simply that little bit better. It may be that the equipment used to record the show was improved upon between 1991 and 1995 and that Craig Robins of Replay DVD had less work to do but this is a really impressive DVD release, particularly so given how Replay could have gotten away with doing less work and still found an audience. As with Series 1, it's to their credit that they did not and have produced as good a DVD as any television comedy has enjoyed.
Once again, Robins has plenty of examples of his work on his own webpage, which is definitely worth reading, but the proof of this DVD is simply in watching it. As before, the low points are the standup scenes but everything else looks great, particularly the location shots, which have an entirely natural air to them. They are perhaps slightly grey at times but that's a fair reflection of the English weather. Otherwise, Joking Apart is presented in its original 4:3 aspect ratio off very clean source material and looks excellent throughout.
The soundtrack is just as good, with everything sounding natural, warm and with dialogue that is always clear. Once again, Replay DVD have cleaned up the soundtrack such that there's little background noise and even fewer obvious faults.
Commentaries: As with the first series, Replay DVD have brought a fair number of the cast and crew together for episode commentaries. This time around, though, they have recorded tracks for all six episodes and with a larger number of contributors, adding Paul Raffield, director Bob Spiers, producer Andre Ptaszynski and production manager Stacey Adair to Steven Moffatt, Tracie Bennett, Robert Bathurst and Fiona Gillies. These contributors are split between the six episodes with Adair and Spiers only appearing on the second commentary (without Moffat and the others) while Ptaszynski only appears on the first. The Spiers/Adair commentary is fine but obviously concentrates on the behind-the-scenes production while the others are much closer to a group of friends coming back together to watch the shows while we simply listen in to their jokes, what they remember of the making of the series and, thanks to Moffat, how the stories behind each episode came about. Unlike a lot of commentaries, these are all fairly entertaining particularly at hearing the cast laugh at episodes they've (probably) not seen for years. However, the highlight remains listening to Steven Moffat who, like his commentaries for the first series, just sounds really happy to be where he is and for Joking Apart to have finally gotten some recognition.
Pilot (29m36s): The pilot episode for Joking Apart is also included in this set on the second disc. If, like me, you watch Joking Apart in a slightly skewed order, being the first series, then the second and then this pilot episode, this will seem familiar. As Steven Moffatt has mentioned in some of the interviews he's given for this release, the first episode of the first series was largely a remake of the pilot with many of the same gags, situations and probably the worst surprise party in human history. This was originally shown in the Comic Asides strand in 1991 and while it's clear that some work has been done on bringing this episode to almost the same level of quality as the others in Series 2, it never quite looks as good, least of all the stand up.
The first disc in this set has a set of Scripts and In The Studio with Joking Apart, both of which are in PDF format while it also includes a small booklet with contributions from Steven Moffatt and Replay DVD's Craig Robins.
In his interview with Graham Kibble-White on offthetelly.co.uk, Craig Robins said of his efforts, "I don't care, personally, if I make not a penny out of this. That's not my motivation. It's knowing the amount of pleasure this can give. I don't know if I can quite put this into words, but my reason for doing this whole project has been because I'd like to think there's someone else out there who would want to do it for me." I think he's certainly achieved what he set out to do and would hope that he's suitably rewarded for his efforts. He deserves all that and more.