Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A Touch of Cloth Cleans Up the Brit Crime Scene

John Hannah and Suranne Jones star in A Touch of Cloth II: Undercover Cloth on Sky1

Last year around this time – as the summer was beginning to wane, and the promise/threat of the new fall television season loomed – two new series premiered which called me back to the very beginning of my life as a TV devotee. Ask my 15-year-old self what my favourite comedy shows were and I would have quickly answered Sledge Hammer and Police Squad! Neither series lasted long on the air, but both have lived long in my memory. Last August, my inner TV child got two televisual treats: Bullet in the Face, a new series by Sledge Hammer creator Alan Spenser, and A Touch of Cloth. I’ve already written about the hallucinogenic zaniness of Spenser’s show, but with A Touch of Cloth II: Undercover Cloth, the second installment of the planned A Touch of Cloth trilogy, airing in the UK this past two Sundays, the time has come to write on the latter.

A timely spoof of the recently reinvented British crime procedural, A Touch of Cloth reinvents the parody genre for our era’s much more media savvy audiences. The series brings the energy and style of the Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker 80s classics Airplane! and Police Squad! not only to the UK, but to the 21st century. Though it takes its title from a play on ITV’s long-running procedural A Touch of Frost, A Touch of Cloth casts its satirical net far wider, taking on bleak and bloody detective dramas like Luther and Wire in the Blood, and even groundbreaking classics like Jimmy McGovern’s Cracker.

The creators of A Touch of Cloth, satirist and writer Charlie Brooker (Black Mirror, Dead Set) and Daniel Maier know a successful parody needs to take the genre seriously enough to carry the story forward. Airplane! took its plot, many of the characters, and much of the dialogue from the Arthur Hailey-penned disaster film Zero Hour! (1957). In the first two-episode installment of Cloth that aired last August, Brooker and Maier did the same thing, basing its broad plot on an unpublished story by British crime novelist Boris Starling (author of Messiah, also adapted for British TV). Starling’s gory narrative is a perfect contrast to the deadpan lunacy of the comedy series, giving A Touch of Cloth’s light, punnish dialogue a moody scaffolding to firmly perch itself on. The recent second chapter still maintains a solid narrative flow between the punch lines, but the writing here is more self-consciously loose with the story’s narrative cohesiveness, to the point of having the on-screen characters call out to continuity issues.

John Hannah and series co-creator Charlie Brooker
Brooker is likely still most famous for his biting and often misanthropic take on current events (as host of a long-standing series of news satire programmes) but here his targets are the crime procedurals themselves, and never the audience that enjoys them. The best parodies deconstruct as they mock, revealing the reliable formulas that even the best and smartest of the genre still employ. (Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz are fine recent examples.) But the one sure test of the success of a spoof is whether you can watch a new episode of a legit example of the genre without giggling through it. Cloth pulls at every thread of the overwrought British crime procedural and the fabric comes apart before your eyes: the brooding, alcoholic detective haunted by what he’s seen; the “meaningful glances” between the opposite sexed partners held just a few seconds too long; the sardonic, irrationally angry, but somehow runway-model-pretty, medical examiner. Through Brooker’s lens, those omnipresent glass boards that TV cops invariably write facts and posts photos of victims on are suddenly revealed to be what they always obviously were: a transparent medium easy for directors to shoot through. I guarantee one viewing of A Touch of Cloth will leave you half-smiling through even the bloodiest episode of Luther.

Like Bullet in the Face, Cloth looks great – but on completely different terms. Director Jim O’Hanlon helms all three seasons of Cloth, and the series successfully recreates the look and tone of the genre it spoofs. Its stars, John Hannah (Rebus) and Suranne Jones (Scott & Bailey), are already familiar to viewers of British crime procedurals. With the audio off, you might believe you are actually watching a new, anguished entry into the Brit crime field, and the actors’ deadpan delivery belies the off-the-wall situations and its punch-line-a-second dialogue.

Like the best of the ZAZ comedies, there is a mixture of innocence and irreverence to Cloth that makes it a unique delight to behold. Which is not to say that the series isn’t often gleefully scatological, but if there is such a thing as innocent smut, A Touch of Cloth might be it. (It begins with the scatological pun on the show’s title, which I confess I remain grateful that my North American ears didn’t immediately catch.) Following a blink-you’ll-miss-it approach, there is rarely a background element without a gag attached. Look away at your own risk: you will miss something. The puns run almost nonstop (“You're coming apart at the seams, Cloth!”) and there are moments of straight-faced literal-mindedness of the “… and don’t call me Shirley” variety (Cloth: “So you're gay?” Oldman: “Bi, Jack.” Cloth: “No, don't go. It's none of my business.”). Admittedly the pace also means that there are times when only one joke in three lands, but even when a joke falls flat – e.g. an unmarked police car with the words “Unmarked Car” written on the side – you can’t help but smile, even if painfully.

Last year’s two-episode chapter hit the clich├ęs running: the tortured detective, DI Jack Cloth (Hannah) – fresh from an off-camera nervous breakdown following the violent murder of his wife – is paired up with by-the-book career-first female cop, DC Anne Oldman (“It’s pronounced Old Man,” she keeps reminding us) played by Jones. Cloth, with his permanent stubble, heavy drinking, and thousand-mile stare is meant to remind viewers of every ‘cop on the edge’, but the character is no mere impersonation. In the second season, as in the first, Hannah’s Cloth is very much his own man, whether he’s patiently enduring an impromptu colonoscopy by a mob tough, or addressing the cops in the squad room with an off-the-cuff rhyming couplet.

The second chapter turns its satirical eye to the undercover cop, the one who is always at risk of “forgetting which side he’s on”. Once again Cloth is pulled out of his drunken bearded stupor for one last case that only he can solve. (I fear for what depths Cloth will have to pull himself out of at the start of the next chapter. Cannibalism? Ballroom dancing? The mind shudders.) The exaggerated sexual tension between him and DC Oldman continues, along with hints of a new love triangle as the story introduces Anna Chancellor (The Hour) as Hope Goodgirl, a predatory lesbian and corrupt candidate for mayor. (“A vote for Goodgirl is a vote for Hope.”) Thankfully, Julian Rhind-Tutt also returns as senior cop Tom Boss (especially surprising considering how the first season ended). Rhind-Tutt also comes with a long list of BBC credits (including his recent turn in The Hour) but I will long hold him in affection for his role as the foppish Scotland Yard detective paired with Mary Valley in Fox’s brilliant-but-cancelled Keen Eddie, back in 2003.

The best satire has a long shelf life – compare Airplane! to any of the Scary Movie films to make that point starker. In a pique of nostalgia, I recently re-watched episodes of Sledge Hammer and Police Squad! and – laugh tracks notwithstanding – I found them funnier than ever. I expect I’ll be watching and re-watching A Touch of Cloth for some time to come.

A Touch of Cloth II: Undercover Cloth recently aired on Sky1 in the UK. The third and likely final installment of A Touch of Cloth (which promises to include Doctor Who’s Karen Gillan as guest star) will run sometime in 2014. A Touch of Cloth: The First Case is currently available on DVD. Watch for its second chapter to show up on DVD shortly.

 Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.


  1. If this series brings to mind Police Squad and Sledgehammer then I'm in. Do you know if it's available online in the US, or only DVD?

  2. Can we get this in Canada please, i.e. British Columbia I mean. Thanks a lot.