TV Review: THE CLEANER (Season 1)

A mordant darkness pervades The Cleaner, an appropriate sitcom for our time in some ways. Bloody, at times grim, but it will give you a hug by the end.

Adapted from an original German comedy series, about a roving freelance crime scene cleaner who mops up—literally—after all manner of bloody demises, The Cleaner both has the cool efficiency of a European comic concept and yet is every inch tethered to the well-honed funny man persona of Greg Davies, who could not be less technical & poised if he tried. This is not meant as a sideswipe; Davies is an incredibly funny man and can absolutely carry a TV show, but his style is almost incongruous when placed alongside the strange ghoulish undercurrent The Cleaner, by its very nature, has. This is a show that finds broad humour in the darkest of circumstances.

Davies plays Paul ‘Wicky’ Wickstead, the aforementioned cleaner who is entirely in the mould of every other character Davies has played since his breakout role as sarcastic & hardline teacher Mr Gilbert in The Inbetweeners, whether his acerbic grumpy family man Ken in Cuckoo or his eccentric middle-aged loser Dan in Man Down, and indeed Wicky takes a cue from the stand-up comedy persona Davies has fashioned over multiple tours – the down to earth, homely layabout with intelligence, wit, a powerful lack of ambition and more than a little obsession with the music and pop culture of the 1980s and early 1990s.

In essence, Davies plays a variation on the same theme in every show he does, but he makes it work due to his self-deprecating sense of knowingly weird charm.

Wicky is no exception.

He takes pride in the job he does, a job almost no one else would want to do, but is constantly relegated in status by the assortment of people he encounters when he cleans up after a death to a mere ‘cleaner’. Even his police woman friend Ruth (Zita Sattar), seeded throughout the series as a possible future love interest, jokingly disparages him as ‘Mr Mop’. Wicky, as we learn in series finale The One, is trapped in his own life; he drinks in the same pub with the same gaggle of loser friends, middle aged men with names like Weasel or Fat Carl, and seems at the outset fairly unaware of how depressing such a life is.

Man Down presented a similar character and Davies seems eternally fascinated in exploring a type that he perhaps feared for a time, before comic fame called, that he himself would become in his previous career as a listless drama teacher.

Davies has commented on this:

I think there are things about Wicky and the original character, Schotty, that I relate to. You know, we’re the same age, obviously, and… how can I put it? [laughs] I’ve always thought of myself as being someone who’s really ambitious and simultaneously not ambitious at all, and fundamentally lazy … And I like the simplicity of the life he chooses to have, combined with the bizarre job that he’s landed in, that takes him to extraordinary places. I don’t think he would be doing extraordinary things with his life were it not for his strange job.

Therein lies the dichotomy key to the comedy within The Cleaner: Wicky’s grounded blokey normality contrasted with his unique and disturbing profession, and it’s a combination Davies hasn’t quite figured out succinctly across these first six episodes, though the building blocks are without doubt there.

Crucially, Davies dials down the eccentricity for The Cleaner that is visible specifically in Man Down, the other series he primarily wrote, which substituted any semblance of real world logic for a deliberately strange and sometimes uncanny comedic hyper-reality festooned with complete oddballs. That isn’t the case here. The conceit is that Wicky encounters a new person each episode, usually someone connected to the victim who has been either savagely murdered or caught in some ghoulish accident, but they are not caricatures to the extent we saw in Man Down. Nor are they quite normal either, admittedly, as Wicky—for all his own Davies-style eccentricity—remains the grounded centre point for audiences to enter the story being told.

The people Wicky encounters are usually damaged or broken not necessarily by the deaths around them but due to other factors. The Widow is a bold start as Wicky is taken hostage by Helena Bonham-Carter’s middle aged killer, a woman unfulfilled for years who snapped and brutally murdered her husband, and who dreams of a romantic adventure before incarceration. Davies enjoys playing with our audience expectations of Bonham-Carter’s roles by having a sequence where she takes an elongated shit, but ultimately her character tracks with the ongoing thematic idea in Davies’ work about people not realising their potential, or finding life has dealt them a duff card.

Davies talks about why he constructed The Cleaner in this way, focusing on individual people and stories with Wicky as a visitor to their narratives:

I like the consistency of him, and the fact that we never let him get comfortable. And it reminds me of old-fashioned shows where one character remains, but they get stuck in a different situation each week. Standalone drama is something that excites me … It was consciously throwback-y. It reminds me of the old Play for Today. It reminds me of Mr Benn. We know that Mr Benn’s going to go on a new adventure each week. I hope people will go, ‘What’s he going to encounter this week?’ I hope.

In an age of serialisation, binge watching and streaming content, drama rarely indulges in stand-alone storytelling but comedy still has more of a space to make such an approach work. The Cleaner is to be commended for that, in how Davies wants to place Wicky in the orbit of usually one significant person in the life of the dead person he is cleaning up, and allowing us to see how Wicky affects them and encourages change or development. It’s an old-fashioned, stage play idea that affords the opportunity to often pull in well known character actors to play opposite Davies, and it’s quite refreshing. We learn about Wicky as the series progresses but each episode could be watched independently and enjoyed on its own merits.

Not all of the stories work.

The Writer, casting David Mitchell as the kind of uptight author who just wants the world to go away—the kind of role he can essay in his sleep—fizzles away after a strong farcical beginning. The Aristocrat, where Davies brings back his Man Down collaborator (and comedy actor legend to boot) Stephanie Cole as a Churchill-obsessed rich woman hiding a dark truth, relies too heavily on wealthy cliches and porting in Donald Sumpter (great as he always is) as the kind of grouchy, boorish knight of the realm who feels like he’s escaped from Man Down. The Influencer should be the standout half hour, as Wicky has to deal with an 80s obsessed, fading YouTuber & confront how analogue he is in a brand-driven digital age obsessed with the era of his youth (nostalgia for the 80s being another constant factor in Davies’ work), but it misses more than it hits.

The best episode of the six is probably The One, the final outing of the run, in which Wicky comes face to face with his long-term ex-partner (played by the always dependable Jo Hartley), and Davies really dials down on the broader ideas rippling through The Cleaner. Maggie represents a life Wicky has chosen to resist, allowing himself to remain a fixed point surrounded by people who he should have outgrown years ago, and in that The Cleaner places Wicky in the context of Davies’ other comic personas.

There is something slightly tragic about him, as much as outwardly he is happy with a simple life in contrast to the darkness of his career, but that juxtaposition feels core to how we could see Wicky develop in future series, should they be made. There is a sentimentality inherent in The One that never tips too heavily into schmaltz and broadly across the show always keeps The Cleaner from being too strange and dark. Wicky’s world might be a touch grim but it’s also strangely warm and often hopeful.

Ultimately, The Cleaner balances a strange comedic concept and only intermittently makes you laugh as a result, despite how charming Greg Davies is and the strength of most of the guest players he invites in. There is without doubt room for growth and maturity to the idea so hopefully Wicky will ply his trade once more. It will likely be a touch too macabre to become a broad mainstream hit but this could grow into a quirky blend of farce, sarcastic wit and sardonic slapstick that really strikes the funny bone.

The Cleaner is now available on BBC iPlayer.

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