A lot of people are suggesting we shouldn’t turn up for Turn Up Charlie, the latest TV series starring Idris Elba, arguably one of the UK’s most charismatic acting talents. Reviews have not been positive. Elba, however, deserves the benefit of the doubt. He’s a great screen actor. He seems like a nice, grounded bloke. He’s JOHN LOO-FAH! for goodness sake. Just on this basis alone, I turned up for Idris.
I shouldn’t have bothered.
This was a very personal project for Elba. He has long wanted to break from the numerous intense or gruff action man roles he has become known for and mine a vein of comedy, and worked with comedy writer Gary Reich (late of ITV’s devilishly funny Vicious, with Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi as a bitchy old gay couple) to develop a project around his second life, and past, as a DJ (though curiously Reich didn’t write any of it, which is perhaps the first problem here). That’s the good side of Turn Up Charlie, a series which very much has two concepts awkwardly wedged together. Had this been solely about Elba’s faded one-hit-90’s chart topper Charlie trying to revive his career, we could have had a winner.
Alas, the core premise of Turn Up Charlie is that he’s a ‘manny’. Not that the comedy of a male nanny to a precocious young child has been done to death or anything. That wouldn’t be an issue in and of itself if everything about Turn Up Charlie, at least in these opening two episodes which establish the concept, didn’t play out with such broad obviousness and singular lack of inventive wit. It’s not that Elba lacks comic talent or timing, as you sense better material might allow him to play to the gallery a bit more, but it’s really hard to buy Elba in such a gawky, emancipated role when he’s such a cool cat in real life.
Charlie is living in his aunt’s house, itself at the grace and mercy of his absent parents who he lies to about the work he does, when in truth he’s skint and living off the glory of a career that never quite came to fruition. The interactions with his aunt Lydia (Jocelyn Lee Esien) and layabout lodger Del (Guz Khan) are genuinely amusing—even if Elba ends up in situations that should be happening to a twenty something rather than a forty-something—the problems kick in when you introduce Gabrielle (Frankie Hervey), the aforementioned precocious (read: annoying) teenage daughter of Charlie’s rich Hollywood mate David (JJ Feild) and his glam American musician wife Sara (Piper Perabo). Rich/poor, white/black divide? Check. Culture clash? Check. Obvious comedic set ups? Check and check.
Given that the dynamic between Charlie and ‘Gabs’ is the very core of the show, the fact said dynamic is painfully rote and grating is a problem. Turn Up Charlie is primarily about men who won’t grow up; Charlie is still trying to live like he’s in the 90s, David wants his celebrity cake and eat it, and neither of them are responsible enough to care for Gabrielle, who is such a plain speaking terror (she mainly comes out with things like “bitch, please…”) because she’s lonely and unloved (her mother is as neglectful in fairness). The core of the show is this – Charlie will eventually provide Gabrielle a surrogate father figure who David can learn lessons through, and Gabs will help Charlie realise there’s more to life than fame and past glories.
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This is all fine. Its clear as day. Yes, it’s all been done before, but so has everything. It’s the execution that matters and, the truth is, this would never have been made if Idris Elba wasn’t topping the bill; it certainly wouldn’t have ended up on Netflix, who just want to be in business with a bankable movie star – it would probably have languished for a season or two on ITV or Channel 4 in the UK with, I dunno, Reggie Yates or someone playing Charlie, before being quietly forgotten about. This may have a prestige star but it’s not prestige comedy and is further proof Netflix will make anything if there’s something with clout enough to throw money at.
Comedy is, of course, always subjective. Turn Up Charlie does have the odd chuckle, Idris Elba is watchable even when he’s got naff material, and there is a decent premise buried deep down here, but should you turn up for it? Honestly, only die-hard Idris fans need hail a cab.
Turn Up Charlie: Season 1 is now available on Netflix.