“I’m not being funny,” says Thomasine Gooch (Daisy May Cooper) at one point in The Witchfinder, and you’re sort of forced to agree with her.
BBC Two’s new comedy The Witchfinder is a sort of comic travelogue, following ambitious-but-inept witch hunter Gideon Bannister (Tim Key) as he transports suspected witch Thomasine Gooch to trial, hoping a successful conviction might revive his struggling career. There’s a lot about it that seems like it should be a safe bet: Cooper and Key are both individually very funny in their other projects, so you’d expect them to work well together here too; it was created by Neil and Rob Gibbons, writers of This Time with Alan Partridge; the rest of the cast includes people like Daniel Rigby, Jessica Hynes, and Reece Shearsmith.
But as is it’s just… not that funny. Obviously, the standard caveat applies, as is always the case with any comedy review: you might disagree and think it actually is pretty funny. Which is fair enough! Certainly nothing here falls down in terms of basic competence – The Witchfinder is well-constructed and well-made, the costuming and make-up is all very nice, the pieces are certainly there. If you do respond to its sense of humour, it’s unlikely there’s anything else you’ll find particularly objectionable; everything apart from the jokes hangs together well enough.
Generally speaking, all of the jokes – such as they are – in The Witchfinder follow the same basic format. Bannister says something highfalutin, something pompous, something a little-too-pleased-with-himself; Gooch immediately punctures that with an off-kilter remark, not quite sarcasm but a sort of wry observation he didn’t think of. They bicker, and their conversation devolves into two overlapping monologues as they talk past one another. It works once. It even works more than once. But it doesn’t work as often as The Witchfinder needs it to, for as often as it goes back to that same well.
Part of the problem, perhaps, is the pace. That sort of back-and-forth dialogue might need to be delivered at a faster tempo: a proper staccato, instead of the more languid register The Witchfinder opts for, dwelling on each retort for longer than is really necessary. More than once, the joke is repeating something with a different intonation the second time. “You butter your hands?” “Yes.” “You butter… your hands.” Again, though, it’s clearly a deliberate choice – the humour comes from the long and winding monologues, you’re meant to find that kind of circuitous, folding-back-on-itself dialogue humorous on its own terms – rather than a mistake.
Still, it’s hard not to be a little frustrated, especially if you were hoping for more from the two leads. Cooper and Key (which sounds, incidentally, like a great title for a Shakespeare and Hathaway-esque mid-afternoon detective show) both remain quite firmly within their usual wheelhouse. It’s good, but you never get the sense that the new setting is really pushing either of them; Cooper in particular, it feels, is just doing a version of Kerry Mucklowe transposed a few hundred years earlier. Not just in terms of mannerisms and comic affect – a perspective that doesn’t work as well with the balance of the double act changed; Kerry and Kurtan work so well together because of how similar they are, and it’s not the same contrasted against a more traditional straight man – but in borrowing the same absent father characterisation. Cooper’s done the same and better elsewhere already.
Occasionally the show gestures at ideas about the paranoia and patriarchy that drove the witch hunts: there’s this great moment where, after pointing out that any woman who steps into a lake is accused of being a witch, Thomasine quietly mentions she “used to love swimming”. Immediately, though, it’s cut off and twists back to the same humour as before. You can’t blame the show for deciding it wants to hew more closely to the comedy, and only sparingly make social observations; you probably will wish that the comedy is chose to focus on instead was funnier.
Again, there’s a subjective and personal element to this: presumably someone will be quite entertained by a list of the English counties that emphasises how many of them have “ch” sounds. As is, though, The Witchfinder feels inert, each attempt at a joke falling flat – ultimately, there’s little magic to be found here, comedy or otherwise.
The Witchfinder begins on BBC Two at 10pm on Tuesday 8 March. I’ve seen the first three episodes of a total six before writing this review.
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