Hard Cell review: Catherine Tate’s Netflix mockumentary is more of an awkward relic than a welcome throwback
Prison mockumentary Hard Cell is Catherine Tate’s second project in as many months that feels like it slipped through time from 2008
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It seems like a difficult time to be Catherine Tate. Last month saw the release of The Nan Movie, a feature film – her first across her career – that put one of her more famous characters from her 2004 sketch show centre-stage. The Nan Movie opened to quite consistently terrible reviews, and director Josie Rourke had taken her name off the film when it arrived in cinemas – it’d be difficult to call it an unqualified success, to say the least, never really shaking off the sense that Nan had missed her moment. Which isn’t even really a bad thing, in fairness: Tate played Nan on television from 2004 to 2015, with a live stage show following in 2016. Not everything that worked in 2004 will work nearly twenty years later.
Hard Cell – Tate’s first writing credit since 2015, debuting her first new characters since her sketch show ended – has a similar sense of something that’s missed its moment. It’s a mockumentary set in a women’s prison, where an ineffectual-but-overpromoted governor believes that staging a musical will help with attempts to rehabilitate the inmates; Tate plays six different characters, from Laura (a vaguely David Brent-esque manager) to Big Viv (Scottish, violent) to Ange (timid, newly imprisoned) to Ros (Irish, deluded) to Marco (a male guard). Most of them are comic sketches that don’t really extend beyond those brief descriptions, built on the hope that you’ll find Tate’s broad Glaswegian accent or affected Irish tones inherently funny and not much else.
There’s a sense of something quite strained about Hard Cell, like a sketch that was extended far past its natural runtime. More than anything else, it’s repetitive: the characters have the same arguments over and over, and a running joke about number twos (second-in-command Dean keeps trying to get Laura to say she needs a number two, in a weak double-entendre that never really develops or intensifies) seems to have been chosen as a running joke because it was also near enough the only joke. It’s at least funnier than the other running joke, “don’t Welsh people have funny accents?”, but that’s quite a low bar to clear.
The result is something that feels insubstantial and waffling, essentially just full of padding – a bit like trying to turn a 300-word paragraph into an 800-word review, belabouring the point long past any actual insight or wit. That Hard Cell feels like that despite what is in reality quite a short runtime – there are six episodes in total, each only around 24 minutes at most – is an achievement of sorts, albeit probably not one that anyone involved was hoping to make.
There’s something almost a little spiteful about the series too. Ostensibly it’s about the fundamental goodness of people, the bonds of solidarity formed on the inside, how even people who have made mistakes deserve empathy and second chances, and the healing power of art, and so on and so forth. Beyond a few saccharine voiceovers, though, it’s hard to tell if Hard Cell actually believes that: most of its jokes, after all, are at the expense of the prisoners, who aren’t so much characters as they are carnival attractions. The ones played by Tate are buried under too much obvious artifice to feel like people, and the ones that aren’t never get to grow beyond nicknames like “Fat Pat” and “Gormless Sue”.
It gives Hard Cell an odd vibe when it does try for more emotive moments, for the most part lacking the tonal range to pull it off. When the series does lean more dramatic, it’s disorienting more than anything else – there’s a bit towards the end where Hard Cell quite suddenly (if at the same time predictably) opts for something more serious, and Tate gives this very panicked performance that’s almost accidentally quite harrowing, feeling hugely out of place in the series as its existed so far. The series might’ve benefited, actually, from Tate just playing governor Laura and other actors filling out the remaining roles – if nothing else, Hard Cell might’ve been able to hit those emotive notes more successfully without the comedy grotesques getting in the way.
All in all, Hard Cell feels very much like an awkward relic of comedy from the early 2000s, almost as though assembled from rejected ideas from Tate’s 2004 sketch show. On some levels, that seems like the point – there’s a lot of musical cues around that time, which sit strangely alongside the tiktok references – but it never quite coheres as the welcome throwback it was perhaps intended to be. What’s hard to tell is if Tate, a genuinely versatile performer, is struggling to update her act for 2022, or if she’s being boxed in by producers and commissioners who are only interested in one thing from her (perhaps the latter, if certain rumours about production on The Nan Movie are to believed).
There’s been a rumour for a while that Tate will be reprising her Doctor Who role in Russell T Davies’ 60th anniversary special next year. Obviously it’d be welcome return if it does prove true, but – after two projects in as many months that feel like they slipped through a time portal from 2008, and that potential third on the horizon to complete the trifecta – you’ve got to hope she’ll find a new showcase for her talents soon.