I’ll pitch it to you with a question. What do you get when you throw the town from The Vicar of Dibley, the leading pair of Fawlty Towers and Bleak Expectations’ eccentric ensemble into a big bucket, slosh it about a bit, and pour the slightly fizzed contents into a podcast imagined by The IT Crowd’s Richmond?
— Wooden Overcoats (@OvercoatsWooden) June 21, 2018
If you’re familiar with any of the above, you’ve likely guessed the overall feel of Wooden Overcoats. Set in a funeral home on a remote British island, David K. Barnes’ podcast places a morose twist on classic British farce, proving once more our nation’s aptitude for laughing its own evasive bureaucracy.
We open upon Piffling Vale, which casts the rather particular image of tired seagulls circling for discarded cream teas. Located on the parochial island is Funn Funerals, run by equally forlorn siblings, Rudyard and Antigone Funn. Apparently the result of not securing the slogan ‘We Put the “Funn” in Funerals’, the funeral parlour is going down faster than many of its intakes, and the pair’s perpetual miserableness isn’t doing much to draw customers.
Problems worsen for the pair after the arrival of rival funeral director, Eric Chapman (Tom Crowley, Shock Treatment, The Amazing World of Gumball) who quickly enchants Piffling by with his overwhelmingly enjoyable funerals. Along with lackey Georgie (Ciara Baxendale, My Mad Fat Diary) and a robotic mouse named Madeleine (Belinda Lang, BBC’s 2point4 Children), the siblings strive to sabotage Chapman’s deplorable perfectness with numerously hatched schemes, which – as they did for Basil Fawlty – usually go up in flames by the end of each episode.
Like the whimsical Bleak Expectations, Barnes’ script is littered with absurd imagery, which exploits the audio format for a wealth of bizarre gags. Size, shape and proportions appear to distort under Barnes’ hand, before finally coming to light through amusingly succinct punchlines. It’s no real surprise, however, that the show is truly made by its dextrous ensemble. Each thirty-minute episode is a masterclass in offhand delivery, and that the cast is formed primarily of stage veterans doesn’t surprise in the least.
There’s a trace of Phantom Thread’s Cyril and Reynolds Woodcock in the eternally bickering Funn siblings, but the prime influence behind the pair’s vulture-like squabblings are Sybil and Basil Fawlty. The reference is acknowledged and accepted, if not occasionally too potent (Rudyard Funn appears a slightly extended John Cleese impersonation), but the familiarity finds welcome vigour through the delightfully neurotic chemistry sustained between Beth Eyre (Monster Hunters, Emma) and Felix Trench (Doctors, Radioman). When separated, Antigone is the standout. A perfect mess of misanthropy and pent-up desire, the mortician’s admiration for lovely Eric Chapman is consistently pitched against her hatred of anything live, and her unravelling fits of frustration are as hilarious as they are staunchly relatable.
Town locals include the agnostic Reverend Wavering, who finds himself continually following up his sermons with “if God exists”, and harmlessly pining film projectionist Hubert, who instantly evokes a baked bean-smelling, too-close-standing Toby Jones (sorry in advance, Mr. Jones). Weird, repressed and ever a nightmare to serve, their low-key eccentricities are a constant source of release amid the Funn and Chapman rivalry.
Despite its roomy bag of influences (seemingly everything classified under ‘silly’, ‘neurotic’ or ‘John Cleesey’ in the BBC archives), Wooden Overcoats is an undeniably playful love-letter to the giants of British silliness. Bolstered by a theatrical cast and almost Dickensian imagination, the podcast’s quick-smart witticisms and spiralling irony are genuinely laugh-a-minute stuff, which invites us to laugh not only at the miscommunications that inevitably spell Rudyard’s downfall, but at our collective misanthropy as a population who dedicates so much of its energy to avoiding eye contact on the underground – and anywhere else.