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New WW1 comedy ‘Chickens’: avoiding war under hostile fire from ladies left behind

Joe Thomas, Simon Bird and Jonny Sweet

Joe Thomas, Simon Bird and Jonny Sweet as war-evaders George, Cecil and Bert, in Channel Four’s Comedy Showcase “Chickens”

It’s late 1914. In the sleepy Kent village of Rittle-on-Sea, where booming artillery occasionally is heard from across the Channel, three twenty-something blokes are the last men remaining. All the rest have gone with the army to endure the shelling of those guns.

Our ‘heroes’ are George, Cecil and Bert, and as the citizens of Rittle see them, they are chickens, worthy of the white feather, deserving only contempt.

Which is what they get in spades. Early in the Comedy Showcase presentation aired Sept. 2nd on Britain’s Channel 4, the post lady delivers the lads’ mail with a curt one-word greeting: “Traitors.” Some villagers have decorated the cottage they share with derogatory graffiti.

The men put as good a face on things as they can.

In this unfriendly world of women, children and the infirm, the hapless fellows are thrust upon each other for company and moral support, despite having little in common. Each in his own way must somehow prove his manhood in what is no longer a man’s world. And while the war is safely distant, there is no avoiding the hostile fire of scorn and derision.

Chaps proving their manhood by any means necessary

Simon Bird, Joe Thomas and Jonny Sweet — all of Inbetweeners fame — wrote and star in Chickens.

George (Thomas) is a Quaker and therefore a conscientious objector. In actuality he is quite courageous, but few think so. The headmaster (portrayed by Rupert Vansittart) obliquely questions his sexuality, but is determined to keep him on, as he is the “last male teacher in the village.” If the women were to take over, fears the headmaster, all would be lost.

Cecil (Bird) can’t get into the army because of flat feet. He would have gone to the war, but it’s not possible. People assume, however, that he’s faking it, and accuse him of making up illnesses. This keeps him constantly on the defensive, and he frequently has to make apologies for his friends, especially Bert.

Bert (Sweet) is an unapologetic coward with little conscience or morals who won’t let public opinion come between him and what he wants – which is usually the village women. When not playing the Lothario, he shamelessly assumes the role of wronged party. In one scene, he comes before the village Relief Society to complain about brown water coming from his tap. Protesting it could cause him bodily harm, he exclaims before shocked war-widows, worried wives and civic ladies, “My corpse will be on your head!”

Of course, Cecil is does what little he is able to smooth things over, before almost falling over the Army recruiting table behind him.

Finding laughs in a period that had little to laugh about

I confess I gave up watching television seven years ago. As an American, I grew up on Hollywood-produced comedies. My experience of British sit-coms is meager. I know nothing at all about Inbetweeners, the series Bird, Thomas and Sweet worked on before Chickens.

The idea of a modern-style comedy set in a somber milieu like1914 Kent is an odd one and took me a bit of getting used to. Nevertheless, it seems to work.

This is no rip-snorting chain of laughs delivered with firecracker timing. The laughs are doled out with war-time restraint, but when they come, they are quite enjoyable ones. The situation at the finale, as our heroes leave the pub and encounter a certain baby tree planted in memory of a fallen townsman, is particularly clever.

The sets and period costumes, especially as worn by the ladies of Rittle-on-Sea, are wonderful to look at. A talented roster of actresses delightfully bring the village women to life, among them Sarah Daykin (Toby), Emerald Fennell (Any Human Heart), Olivia Hallinan (Lark Rise To Candleford), Flora Spencer-Longhurst (Young Leonardo) and Jessica Barden (Tamara Drewe, Hanna).

Chickens may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Still, I must commend its creators for brewing up a pot like this. Some have criticised the show as being “Inbetweeners set in 1914. ” I wouldn’t know. I take it on its own merits and find this particular idea intriguing.

Hopefully Channel 4 will pick Chickens up and keep developing the potential that’s here. There are some great characters here waiting to be fleshed out, especially among the women. Now that I’ve met them, I’m extremely curious to find out what happens next.

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Watch a clip from Chickens: “Civilian Relief Committee” (UK only)

“On the Box” review of Chickens

Simon Bird, Joe Thomas and Jonny Sweet talk about Chickens. (UK only)

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