Girls On Top (UK - DVD R2)
Kat Halstead takes a trip back to the 80s to see if the show stands the test of time
By the time the cheesy 80s theme tune, which looks better suited to a late night game show than a sitcom, crashes haphazardly onto the screen you’ll almost be prepared for what’s to come. Almost.
Girls On Top is typical of the comedies of its time, attempting to shock and be a little bit ‘zany’, packed full of cringe-worthy one liners and plenty of physical comedy. The series has been labelled the female version of The Young Ones, even killing off a main character at the end of the first series, which was a recurring theme in the new wave of 80s comedies—rules didn’t apply, anything could happen. Girls On Top was also strongly influenced by the flat-share comedy The Liver Birds; the all female cast also marking the emergence of female comics onto a level playing field with men.
And it’s the cast that is the real draw here. French, Saunders, Wax, Ullman… The story goes that Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders met Ruby Wax at a party and started discussing the idea over drinks, they hit it off, they later pulled in Ullman… and exaggerated, hit and miss magic was made.
Dawn French plays bossy, sarcastic feminist Amanda Ripley, a struggling journalist who attempts to put the world to rights through her sadly insignificant position on a small women’s magazine. On finally locating a decent flat with a Chelsea postcode, she is forced to illegally sublet in order to pay the extortionate rent. Here’s where she has the misfortune of meeting Shelley DuPont—Ruby Wax playing her usual brash, obnoxious, loud-mouthed American—who offers to pay the majority of the rent (via handouts from her rich, divorced parents rather than any success from her lack of acting talent—there‘s irony in there somewhere) in exchange for the only decent bedroom. Tracey Ullman’s Candice Valentine seems to turn up out of nowhere, usually dressed in a mixture of tight, fluffy and pink, essentially looking for a place to crash when she’s run out of sugar daddy beds to slip into. Jennifer Saunders plays Jennifer Marsh, a deadpan, unresponsive character that flies directly in the face of all the drama created by the other three, who originally turns up on Amanda’s doorstep because the people she’d intended to stay with refused to give her their address…
The series has some kind of ‘Big Brother’ mentality behind it in throwing a group of diametrically opposed characters into a small space and watching chaos reign. The characters here are more caricature than believable individuals, but somehow when they are all together it works. Dawn French plays the central character, and probably the one viewers will identify with most. She’s also the only one of the four to have really nailed her comedy style so early in her career, making use of her trademark sarcasm and lively eye movement. Saunders’ character is a bit two-dimensional, but certainly a work in progress of the perfectly times deadpan delivery she’s famed for. Ullman is little more than annoying, but luckily makes her exit after the first series, and Ruby Wax is, well, Ruby Wax—her talent is certainly not in her acting and her timing is hit and miss, but there is some very watchable quality there, and amongst the hotpot of characters hers works well. An honourable mention should probably go to Joan Greenwood, who plays the unstable, gin-swilling landlady who, when she isn’t taking her stuffed dog for walks, takes time out to write romance novels.
Fans of any of the actresses here will recognise some of the bit-part actors and characters that later show up again and again in French and Saunders, Absolutely Fabulous and various stand-up routines. The script itself is great, and the input from Ben Elton can be seen at times, but occasionally lines and jokes are thrown away by Wax and Ullman. The list of guest appearances also reads like a who’s who of British comedy including Helen Lederer, Robbie Coltrane, Harry Enfield, Hugh Laurie, Pauline Quirke, John Sessions, Arthur Smith and the Beverley Sisters.
The 4:3 transfer here is acceptable although not incredibly sharp. Edges are often blurred and blacks aren’t truly black, but otherwise the colours are vibrant. The picture is mildly it grainy in places, but generally without artefacts. Outside scenes are a bit dull/badly lit, although the fault lies more in the filming than the DVD transfer. Editing between the show and the interval credits is abrupt to say the least, but this can vaguely be forgiven as in-keeping with the age of the show.
The sound quality on Girls On Top is basic, but for a comedy of his age it doesn’t need to be outstanding. The sound is clear and the speech perfectly audible, but there is that slightly ‘tinny’ quality that comes with TV reproductions over a decode or so in age.
The menus are loud and colourful similarly to the credits, but also seem a bit slapped together (like the rest of the disc). The extras are generally poor as though the release was dashed out without anything specifically being produced for the DVD release. There are two interviews available - one on each disc, but both purely footage of past TV shows.
There’s the Ruby Wax interview taken from The 6 O'Clock Show, 22 January 1988, which is incredibly boring, with the only solace to be found in the usual awkward clash between British and American humour .Wax clearly doesn’t get the unquestioning applause she’s used to and the guests, and even the host, seem somewhat flummoxed by her. The second interview is the Tracey Ullman interview on Sunday Sunday, 8 January 1984. This is much more amusing—Ullman is fantastic, very natural and off the cuff with her remarks.
Any fan of the women involved will enjoy watching ‘a work in progress’ as these now successful comedians show early signs of their trademark styles. As you’d expect, the comedy is now a bit dated and relies a bit too heavily on a very basic slapstick element, but the series is still enjoyable. It’s good to see a comedy that knew when to call it a day— Girls On Top finished after the second season, just in time to prevent the formula from becoming too jaded. You can’t help but think, had it been made today the potential cash cow would have been milked for all its worth.
Review by Kat Halstead
Suitable only for persons of 15 years and over
Release Date: 22nd January 2007
Disc Type: Single side, single layer
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono English
Extras: Tracey Ullman and Ruby Wax Interviews
Easter Egg: No
Director: Ed Bye and Paul Jackson
Cast: Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Ruby Wax, Tracy Ullman, Joan Greenwood
Length: 325 minutes
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