This is a difficult subject about which to write, for reasons that have little to do with the series itself, and everything to do with the aftermath that ensured that it would not return and, indeed, would be conspicuously buried, to be deliberately forgotten.
Help – no relation to Help!, the 1965 Beatles film – appeared on BBC2 in 2005, a six part sitcom, a two-hander written and performed by Chris Langham and Paul Whitehouse. Langham plays Peter, a psychotherapist, Whitehouse plays his patients, every one of them, an array of eccentrics who recur throughout the six episodes: men of different ages and circumstances, covering a stunning range of personalities.
Whitehouse also plays Peter’s own psychotherapist. His performance is little short of astonishing: that he can become all these widely contrasting people, some deliberately eccentric, some plainly comic, others very deeply distressed and vulnerable, without any trace of any common thread, that he can occupy so many roles and have you nervously checking every face to see if this really is him again, because surely it must be someone different, is a testament to the quality of his work.
I believe that this series represents the best work he has ever done, and it is doomed to deliberate obscurity, existing only in the memory of those who watched the series on its only transmission. Or those who, like me, were able to find a Region 4 Australian DVD of the series, the only one of that I am aware of being issued.
Because Whitehouse’s writing and acting partner in this venture, Chris Langham, was subsequently arrested, convicted and imprisoned for downloading images of child pornography. Langham claimed that this was for the purpose of researching a paedophile character for the expected series 2 of Help, and a plainly embarrassed Whitehouse was summoned to give evidence that he knew of no such proposals.
Langham has served his time and been released but, as with others of that ilk, his career has been destroyed. Help cannot be rebroadcast, or offered for sale as a DVD because this would amount to promoting the work – and royalties – of an individual guilty of such a heinous offence.
That’s why I find the idea of writing about Help so difficult. It was a genuinely original, genuinely – sometimes excruciatingly – funny work of art. It’s writing and performance was of the highest standard, and if separated from the context of one of its two creators, it would deserve to be praised as high as you can go.
But can we separate it from that context? More pertinently, should we?
It’s easy to take such a decision in the case of Gary Glitter, who has been wiped from entertainment history, his records no longer to be played even on Chart Rundown programmes for weeks where they were part of the historical record. Glitter is such a vile, unrepentant being, a continuing offender who has committed actual harm. And his records are pretty much cheap tat to begin with.
Langham, on the other hand, had a distinguished career of high quality work: an original member of Not the Nine O’Clock News, the pseudo-documentary series People Like Us, Hugh Abbott in the first series of The Thick of It. And he was not accused, so far as I am aware, of any physical abuse, but of downloading images.
Surely it can be argued that his offences are less severe, less serious, than those of Glitter, and that they have not been repeated, so he therefore shouldn’t be ostracised in the same fashion and we can discuss Help and say how good it was and how good he was.
But to do that would be tantamount to saying that there are degrees of child abuse, and that therefore some child abuse isn’t as bad as others, and that is very close to saying that in a relative context some child abuse is “better” than others, that it’s actually “good” child abuse because at least it didn’t…
And I can’t think that way. I can’t summon up George Orwell’s justly famous “Benefit of Clergy” and say that because Langham was such a gifted comic, because Help was so extraordinarily good, he gets a pass where others face the full effects of their offences. And I’m not talking obvious demons like Glitter, but the ones who did what Langham did, only they hadn’t co-created one of the funniest sitcoms I ever saw.
You cannot put that kind of price on things that are fundamental to what we are as human beings.
Much as part of me would love to sit down and discuss what makes Help so good, to share it with an audience who would enjoy it, this exercise has demonstrated to me that I can’t. I can still watch it from time to time, still find it as penetrating, and hilarious, as I did when I first watched it (twice a week: it was repeated, and I watched the repeats and roared again). Only there’s a shadow now, and I can’t discard that shadow.

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