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A Brief History of the Mockumentary and Six Gems You Might Not Know

24/03/2014 15:37 GMT | Updated 21/05/2014 10:59 BST

Earlier in the week BBC Two aired W1A, a spin-off to gentle Olympifarce Twenty Twelve. A mockumentary about the BBC made by the BBC, it's too early to say if a satire whose hunter and quarry live in the same stable is ingenious or misguided. Instead, it seems timely (or the lowest form of hack opportunism to publish an article I've had marinating for months) to look back at the mockumentary as a genre, which has evolved from the misunderstood avant-garde to the default mainstream comic register, and trumpet six underrated crackers.

In the beginning, there was Spinal Tap. Released in 1984, it is a film so perceptive, audacious and ahead-of-its-time it would have made Orwell shit in his pyjamas. Traces of that first disobedience, the deadpan masquerade of fiction as truth, are everywhere now and I want to get onto my six lesser-known treasures, but let's quickly mention: Chris Morris, grotesque-elegant hawk-in-a-fist and our sharpest satirist since Swift; Sacha Baron Cohen, protean prejudice-botherer turned Paramount-contracted expat-rebel-in-chief; the bittersweet-to-sweet dynasty of The Office, The American Office and Parks and Recreation; Simpsons heir Modern Family; the deceptively naturalistic Summer Heights High; the Blair Witch-smudged "how much is real?" wave of I'm Still Here, Exit Through The Gift Shop and Catfish...

That'll do. There was a point, a few years ago, when the mockumentary was so embedded in the mainstream that Miranda and Mrs Brown's Boys seemed briefly revolutionary, with their defamiliarised studio audience and sets that looked like sets. More recent mockumentaries have become even more self-referential. Subtle BBC Four curios The Cricklewood Greats and Brian Pern satirized exactly the sort of arts documentary you'd see on BBC Four, replete with celeb talking heads from Noel Edmonds to Phil Collins (though both seemed more in on the joke than they were on Brass Eye). Much has been made of the BBC's decision, with W1A, to wave the mirror at the BBC itself, but in some ways it's the next natural step and just a surprise it hasn't happened sooner given the success of, say, 30 Rock. Meanwhile, Channel 4 have taken a slightly different approach. Rather than frame comedy as reality (à la W1A or Brian Pern), recent hits Gogglebox and First Dates frame reality as comedy, or comedy drama, with compelling, Royle Family­-worthy results.

The best kind of mockumentary is a dazzling combination of drab parts, an admixture of pathos, humour, the accidental revelation, things left unsaid and the sand-shifts of self-awareness. Here are six belters:

1. People Like Us (1999-2000)

The breakthrough work from Twenty Twelve and W1A creator John Morton, People Like Us follows Roy Mallard (Chris Langham), a hapless, never-seen interviewer who immerses himself in a different profession each episode. An unfortunate contemporary of The Office, it has the same dreary, turn-of-the-millennium aesthetic, but this belies a gorgeous, varied, drily subversive script: the voiceovers especially, funnier for Langham's reassuring tones, are wonderfully vague and crammed with in-jokes. There are nicely understated performances from the employees whose gentility frays the more time they spend with Mallard, a lightning rod of low-level chaos. Look out for Bill Nighy as a photographer and a young David Tennant (who's since narrated Twenty Twelve and W1A) as a struggling actor.

2. Marion and Geoff (2000-2003)

Jean-Luc Godard said all you need to make a film is a girl and a gun; Rob Brydon might say all you need to make a comedy is a car and a chauffeur's cap. Tragicomic storytelling at its purest, Marion and Geoff is a devastating first-person study of divorce, solitude and happiness. Brydon plays driver Keith, who's recently split from wife Marion and only allowed to see his "little smashers" Rhys and Aled under the supervision of a social worker. There's a chipper magnificence to Brydon, who's never been better: generous, cheerily jejune, freckled with melancholy and an effortless fit for Hugo Blick's magisterial script (Blick would go on to redefine the boundaries of British drama with his cerebral thriller The Shadow Line). The writing is so clever, with all the signs and symbols of an Alan Bennett Talking Head, that we see the sad truth through the sweet haze of Keith's misinterpretations. We're neither quite laughing at him or with him; we're laughing for him. Keith is a non-complainer (his name isn't even in the title) and his optimism has a quiet, heartbreaking heroism. Soon after discovering Marion's affair with colleague Geoff, he muses: "I don't feel like I've lost a wife... I've feel like I've gained a friend". Just wonderful.

3. Human Remains (2000)

Rob Brydon and Julia Davis' taboo-ablating roil around the dark interiors of the British psyche, Human Remains is formally a kind of anti-Marion and Geoff, with its focus on couples rather than the solo divorcé, but it is far, far bleaker. Each episode presents a very different, flamboyantly unappealing pair, some happier with their lot than others. It is an exact and exacting portraiture: every line is necessary - weighted with foreboding, smeared with despair, Weltschmerz-weary - and there's an involuted twist to every episode, even more satisfying when viewed a second time (this, along with the outlandish variety, anticipates recent portmanteau series Inside No. 9). Brydon and Davis are monstrously good and remarkably versatile, taking it in turns to wear the trousers and torment the other. Of a very fine bunch, 'An English Squeak' is perhaps the best, a peerless assault on the cruel, sex-etiolated otherness of the upper-middle classes.

4. Look Around You (2002-2005)

Look Around You is Robert Popper and Peter Serafinowicz' note-perfect paean to those faintly terrifying seventies educational films that science teachers used to stick on when they needed a rest. All the tropes are here: Bunsen Burners; white powders; grave instructions; austere blue backgrounds; technicians stirring things, their heads always just out of shot. Both series were lovely, but the first struck a particularly brilliant turn-of-phrase, a soluble solution of earnestness ("Write that down"; "Have you observed the chalky deposit at the base of the beaker?"; "The igloo has melted... perhaps the scientist forgot to turn off a Bunsen") and absurdist jargon ("Gary Gum"; "Bakerloo Belljar" "Thanks Ants... Thants"). The script is gently heated by Nigel Lambert's honeyed patrician tones, an admirable addition to the canon of authoritative voices saying silly things (along with Michael Buerk on Pineapple Dance Studios and Tom Baker on Little Britain). A deadpan, crisply edited, nostalgia-perfused masterclass.

5. Directors Commentary (2004)

Brydon again. If Brydon is the Samuel Beckett of the mockumentary - the fringe existentialism, the experimental minimalism, the laughter of disquiet - Directors Commentary is his Krapp's Last Tape. As Peter de Lane, a fruity director from the old school, Brydon provides a spoof commentary for a handful of dated seventies shows (western Bonanza; period drama Flambards; some sitcoms). The self-imposed restriction of this simple conceit allows for all sorts of tragicomic freedom and, as in Nabokov's Pale Fire, the commentary becomes less about the work than a chance for de Lane to cathart his own traumas. One Flambards fight scene draws on the vicious attacks he used to receive in the playground from "some of the bigger boys... some very big boys, who I later discovered were actually teachers, who would go and change into school uniform so as not to be apprehended." An ingeniously observant, richly quotable meta-delight.

6. The Comeback (2005)

I can't bear that more people haven't seen The Comeback, a pullulating viper nest of a show and the most artfully depressing TV satire since Larry Sanders. Lisa Kudrow is just astoundingly good as Valerie Cherish, a shrill, squittering actress who had her own show in the early nineties, but hasn't had a hit since. After winning a supporting role in Room and Bored (a sitcom so dreadful it makes Gervais' When The Whistle Blows look like The Importance of Being Earnest), a reality camera crew agree to follow Valerie's comeback, but with rather less reverence than Valerie signed up for. The support characterisation is impeccable, some in Valerie's corner (husband Mark, stylist Mickey, writer Tom, co-star Juna), others less so (stepdaughter Franchesca, doc-director Jane, the appalling Paulie G). Brailled with insecurities, the carapace of Valerie's ego is scorched under the jaguar sun of showbiz, blood-orange in a white sky of humiliation, but it doesn't crack. Valerie cleaves to the idea that she is a star and always will be, and for all her strops and delusions and self-abasements, her ordeal is so beautifully written and so agonisingly performed, you root for her. Axed after one flawless series, reports emerged this week that there are plans, seven years on, for a second. YES!