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Joe Lycett vs Sewage review: Comedian’s trademark mixture of silliness and righteous anger is powerful

Joe Lycett vs Sewage review: Comedian’s trademark mixture of silliness and righteous anger is powerful
Joe Lycett vs Sewage review: Comedian’s trademark mixture of silliness and righteous anger is powerful

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“Have you seen Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet?” asks Joe Lycett, as he makes awkward eye contact with a sewage scientist through a murky brown tank. This, well, crappy version of Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes’s iconic meet-cute, where they first lock eyes through an aquarium, sets the tone for Lycett’s latest campaigning documentary, Channel 4’s Joe Lycett vs Sewage, in which the comedian tackles a subject that’s both very serious and really quite gross with chaotic humour.

After confronting oil companies over greenwashing and calling out David Beckham for his support of the Qatar World Cup despite the country’s laws against homosexuality, Lycett has now turned his attention to the vast amount of untreated sewage that is being released into Britain’s waterways. It’s “one of the worst environmental scandals in decades”, he says – and of course, it’s the perfect opportunity for some toilet jokes.

First, Lycett heads off to a lab to learn about how sewage is processed, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with pictures of You Are What You Eat’s Gillian McKeith, presumably in a tribute to Channel 4’s reigning queen of poo. Between the quips (“I went to an Airbnb on a stag do, it had a hot tub that looked just like that,” he remarks while observing a bubbling vat of greeny-brown water), he provides us with a quick primer on our broken sewage system. This network of underground tunnels was built by the Victorians, and although it has expanded since then, it hasn’t kept up with the UK’s population growth; add in excess rainwater and there’s simply too much to handle. Cue billions of litres of sewage ending up in the rivers and the sea.

After a quick jaunt to Aldwick, a beach in Bognor Regis where the local swimming club regularly braves the not-so-inviting sea (residents have branded the beach “S***wick”), it’s time for a handful of fever-dream sequences spelling out exactly how Britain’s waterways became overwhelmed with waste. First, journalist Jon Sopel appears in a bathtub in order to explain the legalities, as if in a very low-budget recreation of Margot Robbie’s The Big Short scenes. Then, for some reason, Dragons’ Den’s Deborah Meaden crops up in the back of a limo to tell Lycett about the UK’s water regulators (perhaps she just needed to escape from listening to Steven Bartlett talking about Huel).

Particularly enlightening (and infuriating) are two more serious moments. In the first, Lycett speaks to a water industry whistleblower, who claims that companies aren’t being transparent about spills because they’ll get fined, so “the more spills reported, the less bonus you’re likely to get”. And in the second, he shows the close relationship between the water companies and the regulators, with high-up executives often moving between both: it’s an industry, it seems, full of poachers turned gamekeepers: “Cosier than a pyjama party at Mary Berry’s house,” as the comic puts it.

Lycett being Lycett, it’s not long before he starts masterminding a mad headline-grabbing stunt, acting as a Trojan horse for his more serious message. This time, the convoluted plan includes pretending to do what every single other celebrity has already done: launch a podcast. This one’s called “Turdcast”, and it’s all about poo. The first “guest” is Gary Lineker, who gamely appears to chat about that infamous on-pitch accident during the 1990 World Cup. Every good podcast needs a launch event, so Lycett travels up to the Albert Dock in Liverpool for an extravaganza involving a massive toilet and some fake sewage.

Joe Lycett takes on the sewage scandal in his latest stunt

(Channel 4)

However you feel about scatological humour, it’s hard not to nod in agreement with Lycett’s bigger point: that water companies should invest in better infrastructure, rather than focusing on paying dividends to their investors. Of course, it shouldn’t be up to Lycett alone to hold them to account. But his trademark mixture of silliness and righteous anger is a powerful one – hopefully it’ll get everyone talking s***.

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