Joking Apart was a refreshingly different and adult comedy which ran for two series of six episodes each, winning both critical acclaim and a highly-prized award at the Montreux festival. In the style of a modern farce, it was the perfect antidote to all those twee sitcoms. It was trailed by the BBC as “bittersweet comedy" – indeed, the series was both incredibly funny and decidedly dark in places. The general theme – divorce – might not seem the most obvious source of humour but there’s no doubt that the writer, Steven Moffat, pulled it off spectacularly.
Joking Apart started life as just one of a series of pilots, transmitted in 1991 under the umbrella title, "Comic Asides". On the strength of this, the first series was quickly commissioned, with the first episode being near-identical to the pilot, though almost entirely re-shot, using new sets (see Pilot vs Episode One).
The plot centres on the break-up of the marriage of quick-witted comedy writer, Mark Taylor, and his equally sharp wife, Becky. He is a master of the one-liner, a quality that initially draws the couple together during a whirlwind romance; but as time goes by, his compulsive need to be amusing becomes an increasing source of irritation. When, towards the end of the first episode, Becky announces she is leaving him to move in with her lover, it’s played out in the most embarrassing circumstances imaginable, setting the tone for the rest of the series. Time and again, the writer succeeds in building an episode to the most excrutiatingly funny climax, yet still to manages to provide some genuinely moving moments along the way.
Mark is devastated and seems completely incapable of moving on. Throughout the series, he remains obsessed with winning back his wife, especially as her lover is, God forbid, an estate-agent! Caught in the crossfire are their mutual, but none-too-bright friends, Robert & Tracy, whose own marriage suffers as a direct result of the continuing fallout.
The action typically takes place in twin time frames, cleverly comparing and contrasting events in the two. As we witness the happier times of the past along with the pain of the present, Mark's sorrow seems all the more poignant. This inevitably draws us into feeling closely involved in the relationship; constantly hoping that this seemingly well-suited couple will one day patch things up and get back together.
Punctuating the unfolding plot, are sequences of Mark performing stand-up in a seedy club. Not surprisingly, the split dominates his routines, with material directly drawn from scenes we are watching as well as previous episodes. His act invariably opens with the line, “My wife left me…..” However, this stand-up is not all it might seem (see part 3 of our interview with Steven Moffat).
Superb writing was complemented by a perfect and enthusiastic cast. In the demanding role of the hugely likeable, but severely flawed, Mark, was Robert Bathurst, now a major star, having subsequently found deserved fame through ITV's "Cold Feet". Fiona Gillies played the feisty adulteress, Becky, bringing enough warmth and downright sexiness to the character to make Mark's devastation completely understandable. Throwing themselves, with commendable gusto, into the supporting roles of the always-entertaining Robert and Tracy, were Paul Raffield and Tracie Bennett; while Mark's non-entity of a love-rival, Trevor, was excellently portrayed by Paul-Mark Elliott.