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People Like Us

Radio 4
Series One 1995 (six programmes)
Series Two 1996 (six programmes)
Series Three 1997?

John Morton's wonderful mock-fly-on-the-wall programme featuring intrepid reporter Roy Mallard, a man for whom the word 'hapless' might have been invented.  Each week, Mallard attempts to follow an ordinary person through a typical day at work, describing the scene and chatting to the various people he comes into contact with, in an attempt to provide an aural snapshot of the lives of 'people like us'.  At any rate, that's the idea.  But somehow events always conspire against him, as does his own intermittent command of the English language.

Roy Mallard is played by Chris Langham, who is in some respects 'the one that got away': an original member of the Not the Nine O'Clock News team who has been denied (or avoided?) the fame and fortune accorded to other members of his comedic generation.  His characterisation of the bumbling, hesitant reporter caught up in a world which seems bent on wrong-footing him at every opportunity is flawless.  If this programme can be said to resemble anything, it is reminiscent of Tony Sarchet's Delve Special series from the 1980s, which also featured a central 'reporter' character and approached the manifestly absurd in a sober and straight-laced fashion.  But People Like Us has an added dimension in its continual wordplay.  Mallard is highly adept at tying himself in semantic knots, displaying a command of the mixed metaphor which would put Alan Partridge to shame, and an unfortunate propensity to dwell on figurative expressions for just that little bit too long - examples range from the sublime ("an area of Cheshire which has been called 'the Surrey of the North' ... except by people who live in places like Sussex, for whom the Surrey of the North is... Surrey") to the ridiculous ("the world of hotel life is a microcosm of the world of life outside, in the world of the... of the world.  Except for the fact that it's not at sea, a hotel like... and it's not a ship... a hotel like The Georgian is very like a ship at sea.  The hotel guests are the passengers, and the staff are the crew, who... crew together, below the surface, to create a safe haven, an island of... a floating island, but stabilised, of... shipshaped... calmness, in the middle of a stormy sea of shifting... current... tidings").

In fact, Mallard's gift for saying the unexpected ("set back from the road is 'Hillside', which - as its name suggests - is a house") is shared by most of the characters introduced in each week's show, played by a diverse and constantly changing line-up of actors.  These are presented, as far as possible, as real people: they have real jobs (always carefully observed) in real locations, and serve as foils for the inept reporter; but it rapidly becomse apparent that they are, by and large, entirely insane in their own right, which only adds to Roy's discomfort.  There is often a degree of broader humour in the interaction of the characters with Roy and each other; there are even one or two running jokes, in spite of the constantly-changing set-up, including Roy's continual disappointment in his attempts to acquire coffee, and the refusal of the entire world to believe he has a wife.

See also: the BBC Canned Laughter tape People Like Us

© JB Sumner 1998