The Cleaner, review: Greg Davies's crime-scene sitcom is gruesomely enjoyable

Greg Davies in The Cleaner - BBC/Jonathan Browning
Greg Davies in The Cleaner - BBC/Jonathan Browning

Whatever you expected from BBC One at prime time, it probably wasn’t Helena Bonham Carter CBE perched on the dunny making number two with her pants round her ankles and a gun in her hand. Yet, 20 minutes into The Cleaner, Greg Davies’s new six-part comedy about a man whose job is to mop up crime scenes after the detectives are gone, that’s where we are.

A few minutes later we’re off on an animated dream sequence with Davies singing away on his own Magical Mystery Tour, and the first episode follows this pattern – which is to say there is no pattern. Davies is a well-known fan of The Young Ones, and he’s evidently trying to bring something of that series’ anarchic sensibilities to this, his second self-penned TV comedy.

But swap the lens and the show is also something familiar, and that’s not just because it’s based on a long-running German hit, Der Tatortreiniger created by Mizzi Meyer. Each week, Paul “Wicky” Wickstead, a proud, state-certified crime scene hygiene technician, turns up at a different house to clean up after a grisly death. Each house contains a single antagonist in the form of a guest star - Bonham Carter, David Mitchell, Ruth Madeley, Stephanie Cole, Layton Williams and the wonderful Jo Hartley – and the episode consists of Wicky trying to do his job as they all get in the way.

Mitchell is an irascible and self-involved writer apparently oblivious to the gory family tragedy that just happened in his living room. Cole is a selfish old toff who appears to have murdered someone for having the temerity to step on her favourite sofa. And so on.

The episodes are just about self-contained, and in that sense The Cleaner could be seen as a series of short, two-handed plays. It’s set largely in one or two rooms and relies on dialogue and performance to keep us entertained. In the era of mockumentary, gifs and meta-comedy, it’s all rather quaint.

Helena Bonham Carter in The Cleaner - BBC/Jonathan Browning
Helena Bonham Carter in The Cleaner - BBC/Jonathan Browning

The show only really finds its feet midway through the run, and my sense is that this is because Davies is blessed with too many toys. There’s himself, for starters – he is ridiculously watchable, with a Rik Mayall rubber face stuck on a giant’s body, a stand-up’s instinct for a one-liner and the ability to switch from silly to serious in a single phrase. Then, he has a crack team of guest stars to play off (Williams in particular is excellent as a social-media obsessed influencer who is devastated that Wicky has gone and cleared up, because he wanted to make some video clips of all that blood for his Insta.)

Add in the cute premise from the German original (what exactly does happen to all that gunk once the CSI team have left the building?) and you have a geyser of potential storylines. It’s an embarrassment of riches and at times Davies seems unsure which of them to employ when. The Bonham Carter toilet scene is a good example – it’s bold, risqué, yet ultimately a little pointless, as if the prospect of an English Rose™ furiously defecating was simply too good to pass up.

But as the episodes play out a throughline emerges, which is that, like so many comedy protagonists, Wicky is actually a tragic figure. He’s getting old, he’s single, the world is moving on without him and Loaded folded 20 years ago. Faced with the prospect of loneliness (in the form of a chance meeting with the one that got away) our perception of Wicky changes. He goes from a lackadaisical smart-ass – a character Davies can do in his sleep - to a post-rave Prufrock, gently yearning for what might have been as he mops up other people’s entrails in a SOCO suit.

With that, The Cleaner becomes something much more substantial than just a showreel for the guy who hosts Taskmaster: it has a main character we’re rooting for. The German original ran for seven years. This first series easily does enough to deserve a few more.