Available on NetflixI imagine the Venn diagram of:
- Set A: People who watch lots of TV and then write reviews of it on blogs
- Set B: People who go out clubbing every night and/or DJ in Ibiza
Is two separate circles (ie A∩B=∅).
Indeed, I imagine that if we added another set to that list – Set C: people who use Venn diagrams – A∩C is going to be me. And just me.
So although I have actually been to Ibiza – very lovely monasteries and churches, and the views on Formentera are lovely…
…my ability to judge the reality of Netflix’s new comedy original, Turn Up Charlie, in which Idris Elbra plays a former hit DJ who’s now down on his luck and forced to play weddings for his mates, is severely limited. That said, there’s a real verisimilitude to both it and its take on London and British life that’s quite arresting.
The turning point for Elba is the return to London of his former best mate at school now Hollywood actor JJ Feild (Turn), who wants to spend more time with his tween daughter (Frankie Hervey); Feild’s American DJ ‘wife’ Piper Perabo (Covert Affairs, Notorious, Coyote Ugly, The Prestige) wants to do the same, too. However, both are nevertheless super, super busy right now and one day, Elba’s left to look after the precocious Hervey after she causes yet another of her nannies to walk out.
Guess who gets a new job looking after Hervey.
A Turn UpTurn Up Charlie is almost never what you think it’s going to be. In fact, so fluently does it change from moment to moment, even switching set-up between episodes, it would leave Halt and Catch Fire goggling in disbelief. That set-up I described before the jump would have sustained a seven-season sitcom in the US, but here, it’s basically episodes two and three of eight.
Initially, it’s a paean to London life. It has proper, authentic Londoners, using real London slang, in areas Londoners will recognise but which never end up in movies and TV shows. One moment it’s a look at multi-cultural life from a BAME perspective that echoes Elba’s previous comedy, Sky’s In The Long Run; then Hervey and Elba are making me think it’s 1997 again by doing the Cool Britannia thing in Camden Market; then Hervey is being sent to a posh private school and learning that it’s nothing like Harry Potter (“Expecto patronum? Bellend!” says one posh Tween after kicking her to the ground on the La Crosse pitch); then everyone’s off to Latitude and being surrounded by hipster Morris Dancers.
Even when it’s in Feild’s acting world, there’s an authenticity to it that reminded me of You’re The Worst‘s magnificent look at British parents. There’s no gushing support from American parents here – just unimpressed dads (mum couldn’t be bothered) seeing their son in Cat On A Hat Tin Roof at the Garrick and going: “There were only two stars on that stage last night – and they were that girl’s tits.”
Modern parentsAt the same time as all this is happening, it’s also a look at child rearing. Elba tries to be the cool friend to Hervey, which doesn’t quite work as he’s being paid to be her manny, and he has to work out how to develop a relationship with her based around that obstacle – something not helped by Hervey’s years in the therapy in the US (“My first word was therapy”).
Meanwhile, Perabo and Feild are increasingly snipey at each other about their failings as parents and as partners, and there’s a lot about how they try to raise Hervey in an adult manner but get rings run around them. At the same time, Elba has his aunt Lydia (The Sarah Jane Adventures‘ Jocelyn Jee Esien) and her Nigerian parenting skills to fight off (“Just invite her round here and I will hit her with this spoon”).
Music revivalAdded into that is Elba’s attempts to revive his career with the help of Perabo. Initially, he just wants studio time, but soon Perabo is helping him out once she sees his potential.
The show’s co-created by Elba, who’s a DJ as well as an actor, but it’s not written by him so probably most kudos goes to the show’s writers, predominantly Georgia Lester (Skins, Youngers), for making it seem so authentic here. But the dialogue and the action not only suggests people who know one end of a mixing desk from another, it suggests they know what it was like 20 years ago, as well – although lines like “Soundcloud? What happened to just giving someone a USB?” make me feel like that character in Not The Nine O’Clock News:
USB? I remember when it was cassette tapes…
Of course, remember my caveat about A∩B earlier.
Nevertheless, bar one excursion to a town that’s definitely not Swansea, that all feels like real-life situations. Equally, the show feels down with modern kids. It knows about YouTube influencers and vloggers, and there’s enough of a Skins hang-over that we’ve got gay tweens (Cameron King) snogging other boys at parties while downing pints and talking about what recreational drugs they’ve used. Indeed, pretty much every character at every point smokes or takes something that’s a listed substance, making it all very music biz indeed.
I’m not 100% convinced that music bigwigs would be that upset by Hervey’s impromptu foam party, mind, but what do I know?
JumpingThe action does tend to jump around. While I do admire Jimmy McGovern’s attitude that he’d rather the audience was mystified for a few minutes than have to spell everything out with unnatural dialogue, a little guidance might have helped – there are rarely any clues to the time jumps that have taken place until a random line of dialogue spells out that two months have gone, for example.
The gap between episodes six and seven is particularly vast. I had to check back to the end of episode six in case I’d missed something, because come episode seven, suddenly we’re on Ibiza and living in Elba’s own version of The Prodigy’s video for Smack My Bitch Up:
It’s no big spoiler to say that Elba’s career has at least taken a moderate turn for the better here, but it takes some time to discover what happened between Perabo, Elba, Feild and Hervey and how much time has elapsed. And what’s happened.
Here, though, the story sort of peters out, ready for a second season. Elba learns lessons about himself and why his career went tits up in the first place for sure, but suddenly we’re learning that Perabo and Feild were never married and now he’s proposing to her and Perabo’s manager is wanting to leave her in favour of Elba and
I kind of liked the feeling of constantly having to work out if I’d missed gaps in time or entire plot points, but it’s a bit disconcerting as a narrative style if you’re not prepared for it.
ConclusionTurn Up Charlie is like so many Netflix comedies in that it’s really not that funny. But it’s usually quite a warm show and amusing because of the characters and their relationships, rather than a dedication to one-liners and stupid situations. There’s the occasional Office-esque cringe comedy moment, such as when Craig David turns up and Hervey embarrasses Elba in front of him, but those are few and far between.
Elba’s great and natural, because not only is he Idris Elba, this is all relatively close to home for him. But kudos to the young cast as well and to Perabo and Feild, who are both convincing in their respective roles.
On the whole, Turn Up Charlie is less a comedy, more a surprisingly complicated calling card from modern Britain to the rest of the streaming world, showing them what we’re really like (well, some of us) and what we used to be like, too. It’s authentic without being depressing and entertaining when it gets a chance to breathe.