We now live in an environment where programmes previously thought of as long-lost obscurities are now available to buy on DVD, a situation as baffling as it is pleasing for comedy nerds. Who would have thought that Sez Les would have been available to the general public 5 years ago? However, there is something of a puzzling gap when it comes to the back catalogue of Mel Smith, someone who is as much a household name as Les Dawson. The much-awaited release of Alas Smith and Jones has been subject to various delays, and one of Mel's finest performances, in the sitcom Colin's Sandwich, hasn't been seen on TV for nearly ten years, despite being one of UK Gold's early staples.
Colin's Sandwich was a vehicle for the by then well-established comic actor/writer/director/producer Mel Smith, who starred as Colin Watkins, a frustrated writer who has a job he hates and lives in Kilburn, London. Although Colin has dreams of being the next Stephen King, he has got himself stuck in a rut; the Customer Relations department of British Rail. Consequently, Colin is something of a dreamer, and the extent to which he lives in his head is illustrated in the large amount of monologue in Colin's Sandwich. Colin frequently talks to himself, either out loud in the privacy of his own home or in his head in public places. Colin's Sandwich was somewhat unfavourably compared to Hancock's Half Hour (the fault of Smith comparing the writing to Galton and Simpson's), but although the general pessimism and clumsiness of the character are similar to Hancock, Colin is far more intelligent and sensitive. Hancock was something of a pseudo-intellectual, always trying to rise above his peers, and was amazingly pompous. In contrast, Colin almost dulls his intelligence down in order to fit in, especially with his moronic work colleagues, and is clearly frightened of fulfilling his potential, due to the risk of failure. He makes several attempts to adopt less predictable, more fulfilling behaviours, but is dragged down by the negative attitude of his colleagues, who are content to lead a simple, unchallenging life. It's easy to see how Colin feels trapped in his job, but is institutionalised enough to find the thought of leaving rather frightening, as it is a common enough situation, especially among graduates. No doubt the sitcom struck a chord with many people, as it depicts very British traits; suspicion of success and the fear of taking chances.
It's probable that Colin would have given up on his writing altogether if it wasn't for the efforts of his girlfriend Jenny, who is the more successful and confident of the two. She has a great deal more faith in Colin's writing than Colin has, and is the person that arranges Colin's first contact with John Langley, who becomes his agent. As she works in PR, Jenny is more aware than most about the importance of making people aware of your talent, and finds Colin's lack of initiative in selling himself extremely frustrating. Due to Jenny's efforts and despite Colin's chronic lack of confidence, he does eventually achieve some success in writing. He gets a short story published in the Langley Book of Horror (an anthology) and is commissioned to write a screenplay in the life of the two series. However, due to bad luck and Colin himself, the route to his success is not easy, and often Colin's behaviour is self-destructive. Colin, as is typical of most men in that sort of relationship, depends on Jenny, often taking her for granted and showing little affection for her. Despite this, it becomes obvious throughout the first series that he loves her a great deal, and is capable of providing support to her as well, such as when she is made redundant.
Apart from his job, many of the more stressful aspects of Colin's life revolves around their social life as a couple; the events he most abhors are those where he has to spend time with Sarah and Richard, with their exciting jobs, and Stuart and Rosemary, leading dull, ordinary lives in Dorchester. To be fair, Jenny also can't stand Stuart and Rosemary, (who are rather small-minded and obsessed with their baby), but the friendship endures thanks to Colin's total cowardice in ending contact with them. Jenny makes one attempt at this during the life of the series after a particularly hellish visit to the couple, but her efforts are laughed off by Colin, despite him having ranted about them to Jenny throughout that weekend. In the interests of balance, Rosemary is very understanding after Colin loses his temper at them during their visit to his flat, and reveals that the film producer Colin is trying to write for is a client of Stuart's. Sarah and Richard are somewhat different, however, and Colin shows outstanding loyalty to Sarah when Richard leaves her (again) and she attempts to enlist Colin as a full-time counsellor and shoulder to cry (copiously) on. The only redeeming feature about them is that it is at one of their parties that Colin meets John Langley. In fact, both of these events prove to Colin the importance of taking an interest in the lives of his friends, something he is very bad at, obsessed as he is with his own problems.
The one person apart from Jenny that he really enjoys spending time with is Des, who is a social worker and always has some tale to relate to Colin from his job. He is supportive of Colin's ambitions to be a writer, but isn't of much practical use. In fact, he can even hinder Colin; he monopolised the time of John Langley during a dinner party thrown by Colin, making it more difficult for Colin to promote his talents. This ended with Des being offered a commission instead of Colin, but it is fair to say that this wasn't entirely Des's fault. It was also the curiosity of Des for Colin's computer that led to the deletion of Colin's screenplay, meaning Colin had to write it all again. However, Des was again the catalyst rather than the cause of Colin's downfall, and these episodes simply reflect Colin's lack of confidence and forethought.
The writers of Colin's Sandwich tackle life issues very well, looking at the clichés of a traditional wedding through Colin's weary eyes, and has the best treatment of a death I've ever seen in a sitcom. Colin's dad dies near the end of the second series, and takes a long time to die whilst being unconscious throughout. The frustration of this hopeless situation is perfectly illustrated by Colin walking up to the hospital bed and thinking to himself "Die Dad! Just die! Kick the bucket, skidaddle, clear off, before they get their hands on you!". He castigates himself for this, just before his mother exclaims "For God's sake, why doesn't he just die!". The depiction of his father's death and Colin's subsequent nervous breakdown is never maudlin and is often very funny, leaving the viewer uplifted. The ability of the writers to be able to avoid schmaltz is staggering, and serious issues are dealt with intelligently. Colin's nervous breakdown demonstrates his essential weakness and inability to show his real feelings, as he confesses to Jenny that he misses his father and wishes he'd been closer to him. His relationship with his mother is also awkward at times; we find out that she taught him English, and described his progress in one school report as simply 'satisfactory', which may give us a partial clue as to why Colin is so unsure of himself. The moral tale of the series appears to be a condemnation of repressed behaviour, and no-one demonstrates the pitfalls of not getting to grips with yourself better than Colin. His emotional roller coaster contrasts with the steady demeanour of Jenny or Des, who cope much more successfully with life, and eventually are able to guide Colin towards a more positive outlook. The death of Colin's father is treated as the turning point in his life; after Colin recovers from his breakdown, he makes the decision to leave his job and take up writing full time, which is where the series ends.
The writing of Colin's Sandwich is consistently witty and tight, and given that a great deal happens to Colin over the life of the series, the storyline fits well into 12 episodes, with the programme still looking strong many years after it was first broadcast. This is partly because the themes used are still relevant, and still likely to be relevant a hundred years from now; frustrated ambition, emotional repression, the grind of bureaucracy and social awkwardness. It is also due to the excellent ensemble cast, and perhaps Mel Smith's finest consistent performance of his career. In short; this is a sitcom classic which appears to have been rather overlooked. This isn't an unusual scenario, but it's certainly a rather tragic one.