Looking Back At MY HERO - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At MY HERO

Tony’s feeling all heroic.
As long as there has been a Superman, there’s been interest in the comedy that can be wrought from his premise. An alien superhero sent to Earth with a frankly and staggeringly random set of superpowers, the like of which should make them invincible, is open to all kinds of comic reinvention.

Add to that the Earth-innocence of someone like Kal-El, and you have a double potential for comic misunderstandings, learning, and mishaps.

To some extent, that’s the premise that made a TV legend out of Robin Williams in Mork and Mindy – the innocence of his alien Mork was a great serving platter on which to deliver his madcap genius. But Mork wasn’t sent to save or even necessarily to help the people of Earth, he was sent to learn about them – which was the way the show took into scenarios that let Williams play, and allowed for a weekly ‘moral’ about human lives and their oddness as Mork reported to his boss, Orson.

In 2000, Paul Mendelson created a show that put a version of the full Superman mythos into a traditional British sit-com format.

If you wanted a comic actor on this side of the Atlantic that could deliver innocence, misunderstanding and bafflement on an epic scale, you couldn’t do better in 2000 than Ardal O’Hanlon, relatively fresh from his stint as Father Dougal in Father Ted. He was never going to give you the rapid-fire improvisational genius of Robin Williams, but the Clark Kent/Superman combination of innocence and heroism? Yes, O’Hanlon could deliver that all the way down the line.

As ‘Thermoman,’ and his human alter ego, George Sunday, O’Hanlon pitched his Superman along similar lines to his Father Dougal, but with significantly more underlying intelligence. The in-universe logic for that did have a throwback vibe to Mork and Mindy. The idea was that Thermoman was actually highly intelligent, but intelligence, applied to the maze of human life at the turn of the millennium, could come across as stupidity – because the maze of human life only really made sense if you were born and raised in it, and since Thermoman was from Ultron (stop cringing at the back, Marvel-fans!), he regularly bumped into the walls of human society and interaction.

Thermoman’s Lois Lane is Janet Dawkins (Emily Joyce), but far from the cut-and-thrust of journalism on the Daily Planet, she’s a nurse at the Northolt Health Centre. Because budgets, that’s why. Still though, in a neat riff on the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, before she started dating George Sunday, she WAS saved by Thermoman after accidentally plunging into Niagara Falls. Once they’ve had their first date, Sunday reveals his Thermoman identity, and the premise of the sit-com really takes shape. Imagine Superman, but so innocent he sometimes appears stupid…and lives a fairly suburban life, not in Metropolis, but in Northolt.

There’s something inherently funny about the bringing down of heroic tropes to a particularly British reality – or at least, there is to a British post-war audience, which shares a general, collective shrug and a stoic understanding that British life is many things, but, compared to the unironic triumphalism of truth, justice, and the American way, it’s all a little bit naff – and that’s alright. The idea of Superman taking the bins out between daring scrapes and supervillain battles – that’s where My Hero lives and finds its comedy.

But no superhero is complete without an entourage of complications. In My Hero, the chief of those is Janet’s boss, Dr Piers Crispin, played by Hugh Dennis. Leaving aside the closeness of Dr Crispin to Dr Crippin (which manages to get a low-level ripple of chuckles on a surprising number of occasions), Piers is where what would otherwise be an entirely harmless and wholesome, fairly traditionally-structured sit-com with some geeky fantasy elements (think early Red Dwarf, rather than, for instance, either Mork and Mindy or The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy), begins to show its dark underbelly.

For reasons that baffle most of the rest of the world, Britain loves its sit-coms with a bit of a dark underbelly, and its comic characters with a chain-mail of failure and disappointment underneath their everyday veneer. To pop back to Red Dwarf, both the initial characters are screw-ups in one way or another, and their being trapped together in deep space is a version of Hell. Still very funny, but there’s the dark underbelly for you.

While George Sunday and Thermoman never come with any dark underbelly, being essentially a ‘Britified’ mingling of the Superman and Mork tropes (both of which are inherently American, and therefore often unquestioningly positive), Piers is a character with a shiny surface, and a lot of desperate darkness in his past and under his surface. As he appears in his day-to-day life, he’s a doctor and a TV celebrity, but is much more interested in the second of these options. He’s a shill, a jumper-on of bandwagons, especially if there’s a buck to be made or a bit of extra prestige to be gleaned. He also has a thing for Janet, so he’s an effective small-scale potential villain of the piece.

While it’s rarely an example of anything but unwanted romantic attention in the workplace (See? Dark underbelly all over the place), when George’s antics occasionally drive Janet to fury or frustration, Piers is always ready to offer her something else, even if it’s a shallow crème brulee crust of an alternative.

As the series develops, we learn that Piers’ low-level oily villainy comes with an actually tragic backstory – his early hopes and dreams were crushed by an authoritarian father, his previous marriage was a nightmare, and he’s a virgin. Not that being a virgin makes you a villain, but it shows that, however much shallow media success he chases, he doesn’t have anything like the togetherness that George and Janet share.

Speaking of which, there are the kids. During the first five series of My Hero (which could never seem to decide quite how many episodes it wanted to have per season), George and Janet have two children. Ironically enough, Pixar launched The Incredibles, a movie about a family of Superheroes, in 2004, while My Hero was still running. The two junior heroes, Apollo (known as Ollie) and Cassandra Sunday are included in the show more or less because they’re a funny idea that can squeeze additional comedy out of the central concept – especially because initially, we’re never sure what powers the youngsters will have.

But family’s a big part of My Hero. Not only does George inherit his Thermoman title from his dad, but his “American” cousin, (previously known as Polarman), Arnie Kowalski (Lou Hirsch) pops round from time to time.

While on the surface seeming like a simple excuse to have a comedy American in the show, there’s some delicious satire in Arnie’s character, in that he was stripped of his Polarman powers when he began to charge for his heroic deeds and rescues.

You can treat this either as a cute play on the incompatibility of heroism and capitalism (after all, not even Superman charges, and he’s supposed to be an incarnation of ‘the American way’), or as an acknowledgement that there’s little more guaranteed to make a British audience smug and laughing than its sense of superiority over its profit-making transatlantic cousins when it comes to real heroes and lifesavers, especially in the field of healthcare.

And Janet’s parents are regular flies in the couple’s ointment, too. In some ways, Ella and Stanley Dawkins (Lil Roughley and Tim Wylton, respectively) are among the most conventional elements of British sit-com in My Hero – the disapproving parents who feel the husband’s not good enough for their daughter, and regularly push her towards the shallow but handsome cad (in this case, Piers).

While they could be seen as ciphers, Lil Roughley certainly always makes more of Ella than that, meaning that while their place in the comedy is fairly regimented, they rarely feel like a stale ingredient being trotted out to deliver a situation-of-the-week.

Talking of traditional elements though, there’s also Tyler – the Sundays’ neighbour, played by Phil Whitchurch. While he does seem to be in the show as a plot element generator, he’s quickly elevated from just ‘the neighbour.’ One of the only people to be able to resist Thermoman’s mind-wiping (used to keep his identity a secret), Tyler develops a complex off-screen, and potentially entirely imagined, life, with fictional characters staying in his flat. As with Piers, there’s a dark underbelly in his past – he was bullied at boarding school, and has a slightly creepy habit of addressing George and Janet as “Master” and “Mistress.”

And just when you thought the sit-com couldn’t be any more crammed with characters, there’s Mrs Raven. Ostensibly just the ultimate doctor’s receptionist – a sociopathic misanthrope who wouldn’t go two steps to help someone in need – she develops into something rather more complex too, having a BDSM-heavy relationship with Arnie (in a pre-watershed show), and frequently blackmailing Piers.

Weirdly enough though, for all her inherent misanthropy, she seems to be ultimately on the side of the angels, and forms a fairly protective and mutual friendship with Janet.

All of this was enough to propel My Hero along for five series. When Ardal O’Hanlon announced he was leaving though, there was every chance My Hero would fold.

Instead, the producers tried something very British and risky. They tried a re-cast – but not a simple re-cast, as in “Here’s a new actor, please pretend it’s still O’Hanlon.” More a Doctor Who, “Here’s a completely different actor, we’ll reference it and explain it in the show” regeneration.

It…didn’t really work. It should have – back in the days before he was more known for his comic acting than his transphobic views, James Dreyfus was a solid bet to anchor a sit-com or star in an ensemble, as he’d proved in the likes of The Thin Blue Line, by Ben Elton, and Gimme, Gimme, Gimme, by Jonathan Harvey.

And the writers threw quite a lot at explaining how George Sunday (O’Hanlon) became George Monday (Dreyfus) – he lost his body in a card game – and writing the mysterious new man with the very similar name into Janet’s life as a “lodger,” who people quickly began to suspect had actually MURDERED the original George Sunday.

But somehow, by Series 6, the energy – of the audience, if not the scriptwriting – had begun to flag, and while the intention had clearly been to keep the show running with a new lease of life, it ended at the end of just one series with Dreyfus in the lead.

Is My Hero a mould-breaking, hysterical, laugh-your-face-off comedy show? Perhaps not quite that, but it’s better than you might remember. With an American-style writing room, including the likes of Paul Mayhew-Archer and Paul Alexander in attendance, you were never going to get anything that classed as disappointing. And the central premise of “Superman, but in suburban, turn-of-the-millennium Britain” was plenty funny enough to deliver a range of comedy strands. In particular, the utter pastiche of comic-book heroes’ (and British super-spies’, for that matter) sudden ability to do things that had never been mentioned before, simply because they were necessary to get him out of a particular jam, was utterly joyous.

Was it a little overstuffed with comedy characters? Maybe, especially for week-by-week viewing. But Ardal O’Hanlon, Emily Joyce, and Hugh Dennis in particular always deliver good fun, and if other characters sometimes feel like they’re only there to deliver plot elements to drive us through to the end of the episode, they at least do it effectively, and before you know what’s what, you’ve watched another series.

That’s an important point. As a weekly sit-com, My Hero could seem anarchic and forced, and could leave you behind if you missed a couple of episodes, meaning it was easy to lose track of.

In a streaming format, it’s ripe for a solid bingeing – and it works better, because you can stay with it from start to admittedly-slightly-odd finish.

Thermoman may be a hero from another time, but give him a rewatch on Britbox and you might be surprised how much you enjoy him in his modern streamed setting.

Watch My Hero today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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