Channel 4 TV review: Ballot Monkeys (Episodes 1 and 2)
James R | On 01, May 2015
Politics has found itself face to face with the digital age this general election. Campaigns can be won or lost by an inappropriate Facebook post. Reputations can be ruined – or built – just by tweeting “Ed Balls”. It’s a mismatch that’s ripe for satire.
Comedy, though, has found itself in a similar boat. Topical gags trend on Twitter days before Have I Got News for You. Photoshop and video editing skills are widespread, filling up YouTube with witty remixes, parody songs and impressions.
Ballot Monkeys, then, offers a bold solution to both problems. The Channel 4 series, from Drop the Dead Donkey and Outnumbered creators Andy Hamilton and Guy Perkin, is partly written and shot several hours before its broadcast on Tuesday nights to keep it as up-to-date as possible. The result is mixed, but aptly so.
The programme takes place on the battle buses of each party, which traverse the country in the weeks before polling day, hoping to swing marginal constituencies in their favour. It’s a neat device, one that allows them to assemble cast and crew with minimal fuss and provides enough diversity to keep material fresh.
Each team is a largely predicable line-up, which is part of Ballot Monkey’s problem: the majority of it feels like it could have been written months ago, not hours. “Are we allowed to talk about Ed now?” ask the Labour team nervously in Episode 1, despite the fact that it aired during something of a turnaround in popularity for Miliband. #Milifandom was trending the day before, which their eager social media expert jumps on, writing swooning statements of youth adoration while trying to insert phrases like “fiscal responsibility”. It’s a witty commentary on the disjunction between politics and the web, between politicians and the young – a fact that’s only undermined slightly by the fact that it popped up in Episode 2, a week too late.
Other inserts are subtler, from a mention of the new Star Wars trailer, which initially seemed like filler but has since become a cute running joke between two members of the UKIP team, to a casual aside in Episode 2: “It’s Grant Shapps on the phone. Or is it?”
Hugh Dennis delivers the throwaway comment with the skill you’d expect from a veteran. And that’s Ballot Monkeys strength: it’s fantastic cast. Dennis is stubbled and quietly weary as the Conservative head, while Andy Nyman is hugely likeable as the well-intentioned UKIP campaign chief, who spends his entire PR job blocking media relations with his chatty, gaffe-prone colleague (Miranda’s Sarah Hadland). Episode’s Kathleen Rose Perkins is brilliantly cynical as US consultant Melanie Buck, who spends half her time making useless suggestions and the other half checking her messages for any word on the Hilary Clinton campaign.
The stand-out member of the cast, though, is Ben Miller as the head of the Lib Dem campaign bus, Kevin. He talks of success and roars loudly like a lion to a silent crowd, but does so with an awkwardly forced gusto. When he stops, he stares, terrified into the distance, like a rabbit in the headlights; a hilariously bleak harbinger of inevitably defeat.
That despair becomes even more engaging than the humour, as the actors start to develop their characters from catchphrases and stock types into conflicted workers aware that the ballot will soon be over, potentially making their efforts redundant. References to the UKIP Calypso and Nicola Sturgeon may not always skewer their target – this lacks the acerbic bite of Armando Ianucci, which the fly-on-thew-wall format recalls – but the hit-and-miss script fits snugly alongside these flawed monkeys, struggling to keep up-to-date in an outdated system. You wonder whether, like Peter Kay’s Car Share, which just premiered on iPlayer, the show would benefit from becoming a shorter, regularly posted web series of up-to-the-minute sketches. With its bizarre blend of old-school and modern-era broadcasting, though, Ballot Monkeys is a funny reminder that no matter how topical you try to be, some things never change.
Ballot Monkeys is on Tuesdays on Channel. It is available to catch up with on All 4 here until 20th May (Episode 1)
Catch up with the campaigning online with our General Election VOD TV Guide.
Photo: Nicky Johnson