Tim Key’s something of a national treasure, as anyone who’s watched Mid Morning Matters, Pls Like, Stag, the first series of Taskmaster, or his one off pilot Wonderdate will know. Also a stand up comedian, and a stand up poet, before he was that well known he was part of Cowards, a four man sketch group which also included Tom Basden, Stefan Golaszewski and Lloyd Woolf, all of whom are just as good as Key is here. They were given two series on Radio 4 before transferring to tv, but only three episodes were commissioned which is something of a tragedy. I mean, in the scheme of things it’s not quite as upsetting as 9/11, but it’s definitely worse than when my Grandfather died after an accidental overdose of laxatives (which is a true story, but, er, probably one best not gotten in to further here).
Cowards was an inventive, twisted, surreal, silly and sweet sketch show which didn’t rely on lazy catchphrases or over the top caricatures like far too many do. A fair few of the sketches are one off’s rather than them repeating ideas in to the ground, and when characters do reappear they build on the concept in impressive ways. All four performers are strong and appealing actors, it’s skilfully directed by Steve Bendelack (who went on to direct Friday Night Dinner, Dead Boss, Ill Behaviour and the greatly underrated The Harry Hill Movie) and shot in such a way that it looks like it could have been made yesterday. It feels slightly like Big Train, the first series at least, but is resolutely it’s own beast and despite the absurdity of certain sketches it’s believable and the characters seem very real. It’s fairly varied in content too, with a selection of filmed sketches, a couple of animations, a few poems from Tim Key and even the odd song too.
To give you a feel for what kind of show it is, the sketches that I loved the most saw: A man answer the door after having had a fight with a bear; A middle class dinner party where they’re jovially playing a game of Russian roulette; A guy serenading a woman with a song he claims he’s written even though it’s clearly the theme to Home and Away; A job seeker who only wants to be Mick Hucknall’s personal assistant; A group of Judges hanging about smoking and being petty (the best moment being when one bemoans the fact that he feels bad as he sentenced a baby to eight years); A great song about Richard Madeley pissing in a lift which is animated in a quirky manner and has a fantastic punchline; A man who’s asked to identify a corpse and is overjoyed when it turns out to be Michael Crawford; Lily Allen’s dinner with Nicholas Witchell; A criminal claiming he’s going to be Tim Henman’s best man to his disbelieving mates; A selection of men showing off their tattoos; A naked model at an art class checking out the pictures people have drawn of him only to find portraits of a fully clothed male, a ship, and a cat fighting a dog; And a father is appalled when he finds out his six year old daughter has married a little boy of the same age.
So yeah, it’s not particularly conventional but it’s all the better for that. It’s occasionally surreal but mostly grounded in real life, and the laughs come thick and fast in every episode. Admittedly not every sketch made me laugh but then there’s never been a sketch show where that is the case, and all made me smile and there weren’t any that I disliked at all which I don’t think has ever happened before. I guess it’s kind of a shame that there isn’t a female element to the show but that’s the only complaint I have about it, and given that there are all female sketch groups it shouldn’t be an issue that all male ones exist too on rare occasions.
The series received a lot of praise from the press, was nominated for a BAFTA Scotland Award in the “Best Entertainment” category and Esquire magazine included the sketch group on its list of “60 Brilliant Brits Shaping 2009”, and yet a second series was bizarrely not given to them which is frustrating and disappointing, especially when you consider how few decent sketch shows there are these days. The four have now gone their separate ways too, but I hope one day they’ll reunite, and if they do the BBC will make up for their mistake and instantly commission three series at the very least.
You can watch the series on youtube here.