When Simon Amstell announced that he was quitting as Never Mind the Buzzcocks' presenter, we all looked on like worried – albeit self interested - aunts. The fiery, funny 28-year-old (as he was then) had decided to ditch his high-money job as an aggravator of ridiculous pop stars, and in doing so, dramatically reduced our weekly laugh count. Only now have his reasons have become clear. For burning inside Simon, there was a sitcom trying to escape.
And here it is. In Grandma's House live an east London, Jewish Royle Family. It’s lounge-based, the scenes can last for up to eleven minutes and it the jokes build when family members annoy and belittle each other. Amstell penned Grandma's House with writing partner Dan Swimer. He also stars in it as himself and borrowed his own career-quitting history for the set up.
His mum, played by Rebecca Front, announces that if Simon gives up Buzzcock he'll ruin his life, plus he won’t be able to pay her mortgage. She’s the clan’s demanding matriarch (not the Grandma as the title might suggest). We also meet her buffoon boyfriend, Clive, Simon’s mildly hypochondriac granddad (played by Geoffrey Hutchings, who has died since the series was filmed), his barky beleaguered auntie and her weird son, Adam. One of many delicately droll touches is their matching mother/son moustaches.
Amstell’s fans might approach this apprehensively, not knowing how his comedic style will translate to fiction. Here, after all, is a comedian whose one-line put-downs, though viciously funny, don’t scream situation comedy. And can he act? Most comedians who try to make the jump fall flat (think Frank Skinner, Johnny Vaughan, David Baddiel).
But Amstell has done it. He’s written a sitcom stuffed with gently funny moments and acerbic gems. To say he can act brilliantly would be an exaggeration; he talks the entire way through the pilot like he’s biting both sides of his cheeks so as not to crack up at his own gags, but this actually works well. That’s because Amstell is something “other” within his family of semi-delusional misfits and living caricatures. He’s the sane, rational, quietly sardonic centre of a triple-decker, eccentric sandwich.
The show does have some small problems, like the dialogue that tries too hard at times, as it attempts to fill every space. A few more naturalistic pauses would have just polished this into the self-assured comedy it so wants to be. But Amstell’s observations are ice pick sharp. And we get to see that deliciously spiky personality turned in on itself, his achievements and his background. It was a plucky move but one that Amstell felt he had to make. Luckily for him, it seems to have worked creatively… let’s see if the ratings follow.