Review: Life's Too Short - Warwick Davis, Ricky Gervais, Stephen Merchant, Liam Neeson
Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant have an impeccable scorecard. From their triumph a decade ago with The Office, the success of Extras proving they were no one-hit wonder, to their mentoring role of Karl Pilkington on An Idiot Abroad, the comic collaborators have conquered all before them.
Gervais fearlessly lampooned his Golden Globe audience earlier in the year and only recently weathered 'mong-gate' on Twitter. This combination of success and chutzpah means there are those eagerly waiting for this comedy duo's comeuppance - has this day finally come?
Life's Too Short could easily have been the overreach, and far too clever for its own good. It seems to be the vortex of all the writers' previous work - the mockumentary style of The Office, the celebrity walk-ons of Extras, the smug office set-up with the two of them holding court that we see in An Idiot Abroad. Are they just having one big in-joke?
Here, Warwick Davis takes centre stage as "the UK's go-to dwarf". In real life, Davis has previously enjoyed big screen success in Harry Potter, Willow and Return of the Jedi (sort of, face hidden), but here we find 'him' in an Alan Partridge-esque decline. The work phone hasn't rung for ages, he has a crippling tax bill looming, and his marriage has fallen apart.
Essentially, it's Davis doing what Gervais can't get away with any more, that is, playing David Brent. His lack of self-awareness provides the same combination of horror and pity, such as when he tells us in all seriousness, "I'm a role model, a bit like Martin Luther King."
Meanwhile, Gervais and Merchant sit like emperors on their comedy thrones, surrounded by posters of familiar-looking films - has the money these two have made for the BBC given them exemption from the usual rules on product placement? - waiting for A-listers to come a-calling.
This week's celebrity cameo belonged to Liam Neeson, seeking a chance to practise some comedy improvisation. What followed was surreal. When Neeson was standing on a hill watching the Krakow ghetto being cleared as Oskar Schindler, I don't remember him being this deadpan. The out-takes in the warm-up show showed Gervais and Co needing several hundred attempts before they could get through this in one piece, and it was evident why, as Neesen played gleefully against type.
But the show belonged to Davis, and he lapped it up, for example when he had to deal with his inept book-keeper:
"I've known Eric for 25 years now. Back then he wanted to be a top accountant, I wanted to be a Hollywood star. I never realised then what a poor accountant he would become..."
Or when he explains with meticulous delicacy to a prospective employee: "My wife used to work here, but she's currently going through a divorce situation, so I’ll be needing a new secretary."
Gervais, Merchant and the BBC have expended a huge PR effort pre-empting criticism of this show as one that takes cheap pot shots at short people, but which other commercially guaranteed sitcom has given the lead role to such a person and then fed him all the best lines? Yes, we're laughing at Warwick Davis, but that is very much his intention, and the 'com' of his character far outweighs the 'sit' of his stature. Gervais and Merchant have pulled another one out of the hat.
Life's Too Short is on Thursdays, 9:30pm BBC2. Click on our Slideshow below to see who what other stars are due to make a comedy turn: