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Looking Back At LEAD BALLOON

Tony examines one of the most British sitcoms in history.
If you were looking for a comedian to embody the sense of grinding everyday annoyance that powers classic British passive aggression, you couldn’t do better than Jack Dee.

While he’s grown into ‘National Treasure’ status, his early comedy stand-up routines traded heavily on a kind of weary, soul-deadened exasperation with the staggering trivialities with which people deal on a daily basis, and it was almost as an outgrowth of that kind of material that Lead Balloon first saw light.

Lead Balloon focuses on “Rick Spleen,” a comedian who struggles to get prestige gigs, and frequently has to fall back on the kind of corporate gig that is the hellish, backwater safety net for comedians everywhere, where professions or even sub-divisions of professions give themselves award dinners, and then splash out on a comedian to do profession-specific material for an hour.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, that frequently grinds away at the soul of Spleen, but there’s much more to the character than just a rebellion against the pettiness by which he’s required to make a living.

Like many of British comedy’s most nuanced characterisations, Dee’s Rick Spleen walks through life seeing more than is necessarily there. That should be great for his career as a comedian – peering beneath the veil of social niceties to ask why we do certain things, and why we put up with other things, is at least the material of many a thriving comedian.

Indeed, you could argue that Dee himself took that road earlier in his career, pricking the bubbles of social conformity that bind us all together in the collective fiction of inoffensive pleasantness – calling every baby beautiful to its mother, for instance, irrespective of the truth.

But Dee, and his co-writer Pete Sinclair, give Rick Spleen a terrible, terrible affliction. He sees the truth of things, and simultaneously has a very British reserve. He genuinely doesn’t want to hurt people’s feelings, so the obvious things that occur to him, he won’t ordinarily say – except in trusted company, such as his wife, Mel (played by the always-impressive Raquel Cassidy), or his American joke-writing partner, Marty (Sean Power). For the most part, Rick Spleen doesn’t want to say the things he truly thinks, because he knows they’ll hurt people, but in this trusted company, there’s a level of acceptance and understanding that often, what he thinks is not “wrong,” as such, only socially unacceptable.

But what that means is that firstly, Spleen won’t use his honest thoughts in a comedic way, either – meaning he can’t put the truth he feels to any productive use, and it churns away inside him as he walks around. That in turn means his skin is thinned and ready for pricking – and when someone manages to rile him with the seemingly nonsensical rules by which society runs, that skin can burst, meaning that his stored and churned frustrations can come out in sneering arguments over seemingly petty things, blown up to the epic proportions of ‘everything that’s wrong with society today.’

There’s a degree to which his constant search for comedic originality in the series – matched with his comedic cowardice when it comes to mining his true feelings to get laughs on stage – makes Lead Balloon a comedy of comedians and their problems, akin to the likes of Seinfeld or more pertinently Curb Your Illusions, with which it’s frequently compared.

Certainly Dee, and his writing partner Pete Sinclair, have said that Rick Spleen was initially based on “comedians who hate being comedians,” the like of which Dee himself encountered when he first joined the business. You could also be forgiven for sensing a through-line of autobiography in the story of Lead Balloon – or at least of the autobiography of a road not taken. Dee himself created an onstage persona to purge these kinds of petty social annoyances, and found a point of connection with many people, building his audience of Inner Misanthropes who walk around being polite to people, and who use his kind of comedy as a release from the burden of that societal politeness. If he hadn’t, the series almost dangles the idea that Rick Spleen is the kind of comedian Jack Dee might have deteriorated to become.

But beyond the potential navel-gazing of comedians writing about the stresses and pressures of being comedians, there’s something inherently true in the character of Spleen that appeals to a much wider audience.

In a sense, it’s a thing as old as Fawlty Towers, and as relatively new as shows like The Office and again, like Curb Your Enthusiasm. It’s the comedy of people torn up by the fear of embarrassment, fear of saying the wrong thing, while inwardly knowing that their true monologue is full of those inappropriate things. No, your baby’s ugly, actually. This charge is a rip-off. No, I won’t “round up the bill” to donate 98p to the Red Cross. That cake you made tasted like it was made of boiled arse.

Etc, etc, etc.

That makes Spleen something more than a comedian having a long, slow, professional and personal emotional prolapse. Something that explains and justifies Lead Balloon having run for four whole series. It makes him someone we can all at some point identify with. The person trying to be nice, trying to be good, trying to play by society’s rules, even though deep down inside, a little voice is shouting “It’s called a Flat White, STOP PUTTING FROTH ON IT AND CHARGINE ME EXTRA FOR THE PRIVILEGE!”

To some extent, though, Spleen’s bursts of outrage are entirely on him. While there’s that underbelly of experience to which we can all tap in, where we know elements of society simply don’t make sense, there are parts of the character that go even further back in the history of comedy – and indeed, tragedy.

He has what might be called “fatal flaws” that always fuel the revenge the universe seems determined to take on him. He’s notoriously cheap, often downgrading the expertise of others to “something I could do,” and then doing it badly, rather than admit there’s any expertise involved.

And perhaps most fatally of all for a comedian, he’s an inveterate liar. To some extent, this is fuelled by the same kind of drive that keeps society moving – the white lie, the polite lie, the “Yes, it’s lovely, thanks” when faced with a ghastly haircut or a rubber steak.

But Spleen – perhaps because he’s normally so inhibited about telling an antisocial truth, either in life or in work – lies with a constancy that makes it a fundamental character flaw, and frequently doubles or triples down on the lies he tells, making them bigger and more unbelievable, to the point where the simple white lie becomes something altogether more grandiose, making Spleen mistrusted by those who encounter him (both in terms of his day-to-day life and in his comedy).

Weirdly, those flaws are crucial to the comedy of Lead Balloon, because it hardly needs saying that usually, the lies he tells, as well as the fundamental truths he eventually comes out with, rebound back on him, doing him reputational harm, causing him even more crushing embarrassment, and essentially “serving him right.”

That makes Lead Balloon an interestingly “eat-your-cake-and-have-it-too” kind of comedy. On the one hand, it reaches out to the audience in the same way as Victor Meldrew does in One Foot In The Grave, identifying the madnesses of life, both large and small, so that we can identify with some of Rick Spleen’s ongoing exhaustion about the world. And on the other, it shows us a classic British archetype, like Basil Fawlty or David Brent – a flawed human, chasing a life of non-offence, who’s doomed to failure both by the absurdity of the world and the things we believe about it, and by his own fundamental smallness of nature, which leads him to take his avoidance of those absurdities to lengths that will ultimately come back to bite him.

We identify with the character on a base level, sympathise with him in his recognition of life’s strangeness, but find it in ourselves to laugh when his fatal flaws land him in trouble, because by actually being the bigger person he wants (and pretends) to be, he could write himself another, better destiny.

As a showcase of Jack Dee’s skills as an actor, Lead Balloon is perhaps not the greatest challenge – he’s a comedian, writing about and playing a comedian, after all. But his delivery is particularly subtle – you can hear Spleen’s inner monologue when he spots one of life’s weird things, but it’s often dismissed with a quick shake of the head or somesuch gesture. That’s Rick Spleen in a single shot. The funny thing in some situations would be the honest thing he’s thinking, and Dee lets us know he’s thinking it – but Spleen is both too polite to say the funny, inappropriate thing in life, and too cowardly to try out the inappropriate thing on stage, in case it kills his career. Which for a simple gesture, is pretty evocative and skilled.

Raquel Cassidy is crucial as Mel, showing us the ways in which Spleen’s character can still be sympathetic even in moments when he’s misdirected his fury. But she also occasionally grounds both us and him in why, in certain circumstances, it simply can’t.

And while other members of the regular cast may not seem to be vital to the central comedy of Spleen’s stumbling journey through a world that seems determined to be bizarre, there are subtleties in the characterisations of Magda, the Spleens’ Eastern European housekeeper (Anna Crilly), to whom Rick presumes to give lessons in English etiquette and politeness, and to Michael, the owner of a cafĂ© where Rick and Marty frequently meet for gag-writing sessions (played by Tony Gardner) that open up the world of the show and occasionally, let it punch harder than Spleen’s regular politeness-fuelled trials would lead you to expect.

All in all, Lead Balloon can be almost exhausting to watch just one episode of, because we understand the dramatic idea of the cycle of consequences, so we know that Rick’s lies and politeness, deployed early in any episode, will come back to hurt him by the end, and it can occasionally feel like a long wait for that inevitable consequence.

Watched in a binge, though, it rewards you more, by showing how the patterns of behaviour that fuel Rick Spleen’s life can make the terminally well-meaning person an absolute atom bomb of damage to those around them (like for instance, Frank Spencer in Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em).

What you end up with in Lead Balloon is a clever, nuanced psychological comedy of modern manners, character flaws, and cyclic self-punishment, played as the struggles of a comedian who’s never quite brave enough to be truthful as a first response. It’s among the most British of sitcoms, and watching in a binge, it’s both satisfying, cringe-makingly realistic, and an object lesson in finding the right ways both to lie and to tell the truth.

Watch Lead Balloon 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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