Gary: Tank Commander – Series 1 Review
Recently, Danny Cohen caused a bit of a kerfuffle by saying that the BBC's comedy output was too middle-class and that the channel should start reflecting working-class culture more often, or words to that effect. Clearly he wasn't including the BBC's Comedy Unit in Glasgow which has been producing resolutely working-class comedies for years now. Some years ago, after the disappearance from the schedules of network successes like Rab C Nesbitt and Still Game, the Unit commissioned a series of sitcoms of various types. Their first efforts like Legit (2007), Empty (2008), the award-winning Dear Green Place (2007-08) and Happy Hollidays (2009) didn't quite click with the public or the critics. However the Unit is now on a bit of a roll, in Scotland anyway, with three simultaneous successes on their hands. The two surreal sketch-based shows, Burnistoun and Limmy's Show are each now on their second series and have a loyal viewership. The cult success however is the army sitcom Gary: Tank Commander written by and starring Edinburgh comedian Greg McHugh. The first series, on this DVD, was aired on BBC Two Scotland in 2009 and the second series has just finished airing on BBC One Scotland (in February 2011) and will be available on DVD later this year. Neither have yet been broadcast throughout the UK but, in my humble opinion (and many others' up here) it's one of the best sitcoms currently airing in the UK and deserves a wider audience.
Corporal Gary McLintoch of the 104th Armoured Regiment began life as a character in Greg McHugh's stand-up routines, delivering his pithy if naive monologues on life in the forces and international politics - as well as his views on Greggs' sausage rolls and his now-famous take on cheesy pasta. Gary is the most unlikely soldier you can imagine - overweight, perma-tanned and camp as a row of pink tents yet curiously asexual and a naive eternal optimist. A bit like a ladies' hairdresser in combat gear. He developed a cult following on the standup circuit and then on the internet followed by appearances on More4. Gary: Tank Commander was then developed as a proper sitcom based around the character and his squad of loyal, but unlikely, friends - Jacko (Robert Jack), Adam (Paul-James Corrigan) and Charlie (Scott Fletcher). Other recurring characters include Jacko's frantic big-hearted sister Julie (Leah MacRae) and the squaddie-chewing, scene-stealing Sergeant Thomson (Stuart Bowman channeling Lee Ermey from Full Metal Jacket).
On paper there isn't a single original idea in this show. Most of the characters and situations are taken from well-established army sitcoms of the past - a wily group of squaddies led by a crafty junior officer (shades of Bilko) constantly trying for an easy life while getting one over on their hard-nosed sergeant (The Army Game) and snooty hopeless commanding officers (It Aint Half Hot Mum). Some of the sketches use well-worn visual comedy that goes back over 100 years to the days of silent cinema and even variety theatre before that. In fact many of the 'sits' are so old-fashioned you could easily imagine this in 60s black-and-white – without the swearing of course. However one small break with traditional format is the interspersal throughout each episode of short 'interview' clips of Gary delivering his views to camera along with occasional youtube-style home video clips of the guys goofing about in Iraq while off-duty. The writing in the first series isn't particularly sharp but what does make it stand out is the quality of the cast and the warm relationship between the central four characters. They are a motley bunch but I suspect the contrast is deliberate. Gary is a camp East Coaster with a ramped-up accent and the other lads are salt-of-the-earth Weegies. In the rose-tinted, absurd world of GTC they are the best and most loyal of mates and at no time do they mock or question Gary's camp persona. Each has a distinct character and role in the group - Gary is the Jester and de facto leader, Jacko is Mr Angry, Adam is the randy jack-the-lad and 'nae-chat' Charlie is the walking encyclopaedia. They are played by some of the best young acting talent in Scotland today and McHugh and his producers have also hired extremely capable older character actors. There really isn't a weak performance amongst even the most minor characters amongst whom is a pre-fame Kevin Bridges as a jakey trying to buy a gun 'like Big Arnie's in Commando'.
What this show also has is charm and earthy wit in abundance. Anyone with long memories who used to watch Chewin' the Fat may remember the two old queens who'd do anything to hear 'The Glasgow Banter'. Well, they'd love this because 'the banter' pops up every so often at the heart of the show. Which brings me to one of the solid advantages of this recent crop of Scottish comedies. Up until a few years ago, everything filmed in Scotland tended to be played in a strange kind of stage-school Scots English, over-enunciated and leaving out many of the features of ordinary Scottish speech such as elisions and glottal stops. It always sounds artificial and can still be heard in internationally-targeted productions. The most recent example being Gary Lewis's guest turn a few weeks back in the BBC's Outcasts where he spoke the weirdest variety of Scots English I've heard for a long time. But recently in Scotland there seems to have been a conscious artistic decision to allow the actors to speak in their everyday tones as all the series made so far have been intended primarily for domestic consumption. The relaxed tone allows the actors to deliver easier, more natural performances and allows for better quickfire repartee.
There are six episodes lasting approx 29 minutes each on a single disc.
Transfer and Sound
The show is filmed entirely on location in anamorphic widescreen and appears to have been shot on DV cameras with a filmic grain added in post-production. The image is clean and flawless as you would expect from a show filmed recently. The stereo soundtrack is effective and clear and there is no laugh-track (thank goodness). The dialogue is clearly if rapidly delivered although non-Scots viewers might have some trouble understanding some of the language but the situations are so universal that the tone and delivery are enough to get the meaning over. And you can always switch on the subtitles.
Each episode is comprehensively subtitled in English. Well, sort of. As always with this type of show done in colloquial language, the subtitler has to decide whether to go all out for phonetic transcription, use standard English or settle for an uneasy mixture of the two. The subtitler here has settled for the third option which is neither fish nor fowl but still captures the flavour of the dialogue. They have also misheard or misread some of the more obscure sweary words - 'fud' is transcribed as 'flid'. I suspect they were working from a shooting script.
There are two short behind-the-scenes items.
Creating Iraq in Kirkintilloch (3m 16s)
Graham Rose, the production designer, leads a tour of the location used for the Iraq youtube-style footage.
Cast and Crew Q & A (6m 17s)
Self-explanatory. Includes various cast members impersonating Gary.
Not everybody agrees with me but I love this show. It makes me (and many people I know) smile, laugh and giggle like no other at the moment and it deserves to be seen by a wider audience. In no way is it meant to be a realistic portrayal of life in the army. It's just a silly, absurd old-fashioned sitcom. Don't be put off by the broad language either. The show uses universal situations and many of the gags were old when even Bruce Forsyth was young. Because this is the first series it is a wee bit hit and miss but the recently-aired second series is more polished, confident and even funnier. If you fancy sampling this tried and tested old wine in a shiny new bottle there are loads of clips on youtube. Give it a go.