Philosophers remain divided on that one, so here's another puzzler: if a comedy appears on the BBC, but isn't funny, is it still a comedy? Approach it from a different angle: if the BBC fail to acknowledge good, new writers, whom I'm assuming are out there and pitching to the Beeb, should we still dutifully pay our licence fee?
Walter (BBC1) wasn't written by a hot young writer, or even a garlanded old writer. It was written by the boss of ITV Studios. He sent the script to the BBC under the pseudonym of Ruby Solomon, and it was accepted. What japes! But I find it hard to believe this cute story. Surely there's no way this high-flying executive from luvvie land mucked in with the nobodies, pitching and scrambling to be heard, trying his luck with the other unknowns. I assume he knew someone who knew someone and that someone picked his appalling script from the pile and smeared it all over our Friday night screens.
Walter was terrible. I'd like to leave it at that, emphasising the bleak truth of the statement, but I'm obliged to write more.
It opens with suicide: a man throws himself in front of a Tube train. Then come some chirpy opening credits, as though the programme is announcing that it's daring: we'll follow a railway suicide with twinkly music.
Adrian Dunbar stars as Walter, playing the same weary, good-hearted cop he played in Line of Duty. Even the set looked the same, being the familiar open-plan police office, and it seemed astonishingly cruel to put Dunbar in this similar setting, and in such a similar role, so soon after his excellent performance in Line of Duty. It was as though he was deliberately being taunted with memories of past greatness, like a once great rock band now resigned to playing damp pubs in Doncaster. I half-expected the cast of Line of Duty to leap out and shout 'surprise!' poking Dunbar in the shoulder, saying 'Fooled you! As if we'd let you do this!'
Walter is summoned to the Superintendent's office to inherit the caseload of the Tube-jumping copper. The problem is that the dead guy had been working with an undercover cop whose cover was so deep that no-one knows who he is. Except the dead copper. But he's dead, you see? What a pickle!
Hilarity must ensue. It must, because Dunbar has an Irish accent and his sidekick has a Welsh one. This means they're mavericks. Outsiders. They play by their own rules. You can tell this by the accents and because the Welsh one has spilled coffee on her blouse. Oh! Those crazy cops!
Then the craziness escalates. The strict Superintendent is seen in bed with a man, eating a box of chocolates. See the layers of characterisation: you thought he was a conventional, uptight, conservative man but - look! - he's in bed with a chap eating chocolates! Naturally, jokes follow about how he will 'get to the bottom' of things.
Incredibly, that wasn't the worst attempt at humour. So many bad jokes ensued that I started to write them down. I wanted to have them committed to paper in harsh black ink so that, when I came back to write my review, I'd know it wasn't a dream. Here's an ugly taster: Walter spills a drink on his lap and the Welsh one goes 'You look like you've wet yourself!' Walter sees a fatty eating a jumbo pack of Wotsits with a Diet Coke. 'That'll really make a difference,' he quips. The boss tells Walter, 'I need something positive.' 'Well, inflation's down to 2%', says Walter.
This was embarrassing. Dunbar is such a fine actor, but seeing him mired in this was uncomfortable. It was like watching your Dad being humiliated.
The shoddy plot resolves itself somehow: there's a shooting, a big baldy man gets thumped by the Welsh bird, money is found in a toilet and a detective keeps hanging around in rooms playing a Gameboy.
This programme was so poor I was wickedly amused. Then disbelieving. Then angry. Why, BBC, why? There must be young comedy writers out there who are doing better work than this. The law of averages says so. I even know a few myself. For God's sake utilise them! Phone me, Auntie, and I'll give you their damn names. But then, you don't need my recommendation because almost anyone could do better than this. A child could do better. A sticky, newborn kitten could do better. One of those hard, powdery crisps you always find in a McCoy's bag could do better.
Walter was filmed as a pilot and the writer is hoping to be commissioned for a full series which proves that hope persists in even the most futile endeavours. I just hope the young writers being rejected, snubbed and ignored by the high heid yins at the BBC have similar reserves.