For the first time ever, Not Going Out went out live for the show’s latest Christmas special. But was Ding Dong Merrily on Live a turkey or a triumph?
This review contains details of Friday’s live broadcast of Not Going Out – if you missed it make sure you’ve caught up on BBC iPlayer before continuing!
It’s been just over a month since we saw Lee Mack guest star in Doctor Who as Dan Cooper, an affable warehouse worker at the largest retailer in the galaxy, Kerblam. And much like Doctor Who, Mack’s sitcom Not Going Out is no stranger to self-renewal.
Not only has the multi award-winning comedy survived several cast changes and its own period of cancellation – albeit one quite a bit shorter than Doctor Who‘s own ‘wilderness years’ – last year it even engaged in some time travel of its own, jumping forward seven years to a cosy suburban family setting quite unlike the will-they-won’t-they flatshare premise of its early days, but still maintaining its traditional yet sharp humour.
So whilst Not Going Out is certainly not the first show to tackle a live broadcast – Inside No. 9 memorably tested the format to its limits this Halloween – Friday’s festive episode successfully provided a fresh take on the concept without sacrificing the core essentials of what makes the sitcom so popular. The special made an enjoyable series of explicit nods to its live nature throughout, greatly facilitated by linking it in to a plot which saw Lee (Mack) and Lucy (Sally Bretton) having to organise a live variety fundraiser for their children’s school.
Clearly determined not to make life easy either for himself or his fellow cast members, Mack and co-writer Daniel Peak peppered the script with several set pieces making the most of the show going out live. These were accomplished with aplomb, from Lee juggling eggs to Lucy’s mum Wendy (Deborah Grant) with a neat quick-change. Another highlight came from Toby (Hugh Dennis) and Anna (Abigail Cruttenden), whose take on Tom Lehrer’s ‘The Elements’ song segued from genuinely impressive to downright hilarious once they resorted to making up their own lyrics and then descended into an on-stage row, all cheerily underscored by a jaunty Gilbert and Sullivan piano accompaniment.
Despite the huge potential for mishaps, the only real slip came early on as Bretton fumbled a line before quickly recovering, but not before providing Mack with the perfect opportunity for a swift and witty ad-lib. Technical aspects of the show were also generally managed well; longer-than-usual scene transitions did slow down the pace slightly, but were necessary to allow Mack – the only actor in every scene – the chance to make it from set to set! In fact, the live elements of the show were handled so smoothly for the most part that viewers could have been mistaken for thinking it was pre-recorded, were it not for a suitably topical Jeremy Corbyn joke.
But whilst Not Going Out fully, knowingly and skilfully played up to the gimmick of a live episode, it did so without compromising on plot. Jealous of the flirtation between Lucy and the headliner of the school fundraiser, suave knife-thrower Juan (an excellent supporting turn from Tom Benedict Knight), Lee set out to destroy the variety act’s reputation, before unforeseen consequences saw him go to extremes to salvage the resulting situation. Standard fare for an episode of Not Going Out, perhaps, but bolstered by engaging performances and a reliably gag-filled script.
Overall, Ding Dong Merrily on Live was one of the strongest showings Not Going Out has had in recent years. Its knowing take on the live format was executed with an abundance of wit, pace and energy, resulting in a festive special that may not have been particularly innovative, but nonetheless thoroughly enjoyable. As the show heads into its tenth series next year, it’s clear that there’s still plenty of life in what is currently the longest-running sitcom on television.