I’m a huge fan of Matt Berry’s, he’s a comedic actor some struggle with and his affected way of speaking occasionally irritates certain audience members but personally I’ve yet to tire of his normally very funny pompous characters. Year Of The Rabbit is his latest sitcom where he plays a nineteenth century policeman, it being a kind of Peaky Blinders affair but with laughs as he blunders his way from crime scene to crime scene, he’s not completely incompetent though without the help of new partner Sergeant Strauss (Freddie Fox) and, most importantly, his boss’s daughter Mable (Susan Wokoma) he wouldn’t get anywhere.
It looks like it’s a very expensive affair as it’s beautifully filmed and the locations feel realistic, and plot wise there’s a lot going on too as Inspector Rabbit is assigned a new partner, the fresh faced and rather excitable Sergeant Strauss (Freddie Fox) while Mable, the daughter of Rabbit’s boss (Alun Armstrong, doing a bang up job) really wants to be a copper herself, though these being Victorian times such a thing is laughed at. Rabbit has a nemesis in the former of fellow policeman Tanner (Paul Kaye) who solves a murder ridiculously easily just to put Rabbit’s nose out of joint, to the extent that he presumes he must be wrong and so sets out to discover what really happened.
Toast of London is an unqualified success and Berry at his best so I had high hopes for the series, but it’s a mixed affair, some parts work effectively but some fall rather flat. It relies on inventive swearing and cockney rhyming slang for laughs all too often which we’ve seen time and again and though I’m normally a fan of such things they’re not particularly funny here, the show’s much better when it’s comes to it’s visual gags but there really aren’t enough of them. The ones that are present – the beginning for instance, which seems to be a violent interrogation but is in fact just Inspector Rabbit giving a talk at a school, and a sequence where he tries to ride a bike despite not knowing how to – elicit strong laughter but they’re few and far apart.
A meeting with the Elephant Man should be funny – Joseph Merrick is portrayed as an alternately camp or gruff theatrical type, but the dialogue isn’t strong enough, and Rabbit’s heart attacks where he requires a punch to the chest to restart the organ are played in a dull manner so just seem to get in the way of events rather than being amusing. But then other parts are inspired, a visit to a Victorian strip club sees the women saucily revealing their ankles and is beautifully acted out, while Rabbit and Strauss’s shock at Mable stealing a library book is fun too, indeed Mable’s a great character in general and easily one of the best things about the show.
Unfortunately the negatives almost outweigh the positives, or are at least on an equal footing. Berry’s cockney accent is a bit dodgy and he forgets to do it half the time which just seems strange, there’s a couple of scenes which are pointless, like the bit where Rabbit gets beaten up in a pub, and the dialogue needs to be sharper in general. It’s written by Kevin Cecil and Andy Riley (with Matt Berry given an additional material credit) and Cecil and Riley’s cv includes Black Books, Veep, and The Armando Iannucci Shows so it’s surprising it’s such an inconsistent piece, and I really expected more from everyone involved. Still, this is just the first episode and there are enough positive elements to lead me to be vaguely optimistic that it might improve, but at the same time I wouldn’t be completely shocked if it doesn’t.
UK viewers can watch the show on All4 here.