Screen Savors: Rise of the Phoenix

It's that endearing quality of big dreams overcoming small-time screw-ups that makes the show a whole bigger than its parts.

Every once in a while, a show creeps up on you. We weren't sure what we were in for when we plopped the disc of Phoenix Nights into our DVD, being unfamiliar with the series or its star, Peter Kay. But the UK import about a hapless nightclub owner who's out to give it one more go charmed us enough that we've already booked a table for next week. (Tuesday, 10:55, YES Plus) Brits and other fans already know that Kay is considered one of the UK's greatest comedians, having already turned in a solid effort in That Peter Kay Thing, in which he essentially did a male Tracey Ullman, playing a variety of roles. The same's true here, essentially, only within a more restricted plot line. Mainly, Kay plays Brian Potter, a wheelchair-bound self-styled nightclub impresario who's a little down on his luck and given to riffs of wild cursing when things don't go his way, which is most of the time. Our favorite: "Sweet Baby Jesus and the orphans!!" And there are shades of Archie Bunker in his character, with a trunk-load of malapropisms, including a reference to singers performing "A-ca-pulco," and his reference to "ca-NAPES." As a local reporter in the small UK town where the club is being prepared for its grand opening reminds Brian: "Your first club flooded, your second one burned down and now you've rebuilt? Why?" "Third time lucky, I guess," snaps the cheeky Brian, but his luck isn't very good. The video games company has delivered a Das Boot model instead of The Matrix, his electricity is spotty, and a key member of the house band is stuck somewhere in Scotland. Still, Brian dreams on, telling the boys working on decorative bulbs for the roof, "Think Las Vegas!" It's that endearing quality of big dreams overcoming small-time screw-ups that makes the show so charming. In fact, the club itself recalls those seen in several British films, including The Full Monty and Little Voice - local venues where the hardworking small-town folk are happy to have a night out, no matter how bad the performances. That charm goes a long way when it's combined with a winning group of characters, like the host of what passes for the club's show - Jerry St. Clair, played by the wonderful Dave Spikey, who co-wrote the series with Kay. Whether it's his emergence through the curtain as the theme song from The Saint TV show plays, his off-key crooning of "New York, New York" (with "Phoe-nix, Phoe-nix" substituted), or his overall show-must-go-on bravado, Spikey as St. Clair is a hoot. So is Toby Foster as Les, the DJ who's got terrible taste in music, and a sound system to match. Meanwhile, poor Brian has to put up with the bunch of dolts who work with him and with one small disaster after another. So when the electrical system breaks down, he's saved by the fact that Jerry's booked an acoustic band. But when the band's second song turns out to be a ditty about preferring white shoes over black ones called "Send the Buggers Back" - which a local reporter deems racist - Brian orders them pulled from the stage, and hysteria reigns. Is it any wonder that when someone says "God loves you, Brian," he snaps: "Does He? He's got a funny way of showing it." "You want to sing at me funeral, lads? Cuz it's comin‚" may be his regular refrain when dealing with his staff, but this club owner's determined to make a go of it. Brian's not giving up - there'll be another show soon enough, he's got a new electrician (who might be a released murderer), and there's talent lining up to audition. So what if they've tied themselves and their electric guitar to a huge rotating record? The audience is forgiving and, thanks to Kay & Co, evenings at The Phoenix Club are worth waiting for.