Don’t Forget the Driver, episode 1, review: this post-Brexit comedy is all bitter, no sweet

Toby Jones (left) stars in Don't Forget the Driver - BBC
Toby Jones (left) stars in Don't Forget the Driver - BBC

Don’t Forget the Driver (BBC Two) was billed as a new comedy but it didn’t elicit a single smile, let alone an actual laugh. I know the televisual trend in recent years has been towards naturalistic, downbeat sitcoms, but this one was almost impressive in its steadfast refusal to amuse.

Co-written by and starring Toby Jones, the series followed a lonely coach driver called Peter Green in the faded seaside town of Bognor Regis. Put-upon Peter wanted a quiet life, but was beset by problems with his disaffected stoner daughter Kayla (Erin Kellyman) and ailing mother Joy (Marcia Warren), who was rapidly sliding into dementia. 

“Kids and mums, eh?” said Fran, his burger-flipping potential love interest (Claire Rushbrook), in sympathetic tones. “Yeah,” replied Peter with a sigh. “Mums and kids.”

Each episode covers an excursion to a different destination. The first trip was to Dunkirk, as Peter took a busload of pensioners to visit the war graves and do some duty-free shopping. What should have been an ordinary day was turned upside down by two unexpected arrivals in sleepy Bognor. 

Don’t Forget the Driver has been described as a “post-Brexit comedy”. And it did have a state-of-the-nation sweep, touching on the migrant crisis, Islamophobia and care of the elderly. St George’s Cross flags fluttered. We glimpsed asylum seekers in Calais, a Polish rough sleeper and an unscrupulous people trafficker. Bloated and discoloured after days in the water, a body washed up on the beach.

Left to right: Jo Eaton-Kent, Erin Kellyman and Claire Rushbrook in Don't Forget the Driver - Credit: BBC
Left to right: Jo Eaton-Kent, Erin Kellyman and Claire Rushbrook in Don't Forget the Driver Credit: BBC

When he returned to the depot, Peter found a vulnerable young female refugee stowed away in his wheel-arch. It’s no spoiler to reveal that a future episode sees him take her in – echoing another sitcom that concluded tonight, Channel 4’s far superior Home.

The script touched on both the beauty and ugliness of small-town life. Offset against flashes of warmth and neighbourliness were racist old ladies and work-shy youngsters. One jarring character amid the ensemble was Peter’s co-driver Squeaky Dave (Danny Kirrane), a laddish James Corden type who seemed to have wandered in from a different show altogether. 

It was all shot with arthouse flourishes: a Martin Parr-esque garish colour palette, kitschy cutaways and painterly framed compositions. A balletic, sped-up sequence in a French hypermarket was soundtracked by Philip Glass.

Toby Jones is a hugely gifted actor who won a Bafta last year for the gentle gem Detectorists. He was aiming for something similarly bittersweet here, but neglected the “sweet” part. This frequently felt like a Mike Leigh film in search of a better script.

The bleak worldview and melancholic mood made it uncomfortable to watch at times, more akin to a low-key drama than a comedy. Don’t Forget the Driver, sure – but don’t forget the jokes either.