‘The Completely Made-Up Adventures of Dick Turpin’ Is Regrettably Limp


It’s 1735. A coach bounces along a country road. Inside, English aristocrats drink and flirt. The man gives the woman a “massive diamond,” oblivious to the fact that a masked highwayman is behind them on the road — and rapidly gaining. The driver yells that they’re being robbed. The aristocrat tries to give his dueling pistol to the driver. But his driver is gone, the highwayman in his place. When the aristocrat tries to warn his lady, the highwayman has replaced her too: He’s wearing a double of her dress and nestled next to the aristocrat on the seat, the lady beaming across from them, because she knows their robber is Dick Turpin. The man is honored to be robbed by “the most famous and dashing highwayman of all time”! The lady wants a kiss! Watching a sitcom about a skillful thief whose quasi-magical powers are readily accepted by his victims sure will be fun! 

But when Dick leans in to give the lady a smooch, she turns into a bearded man (and one notably unimpressed by Dick). Soon, when Dick is slapped awake, we see he’s in a jail cell, awaiting execution at the gallows the next day. And watching a sitcom about this intermittently successful thief sure is intermittently fun!

I’m not saying The Completely Made-Up Adventures of Dick Turpin, which premieres its first two episodes on AppleTV+ plus Friday, probably only exists because someone at the platform screamed “Get me MY Our Flag Means Death!” at their assistant. I am saying that, like FlagDick revolves around a fictionalized version of a real historical figure — “gentleman pirate” Stede Bonnet, in the former case; in the latter, the titular highwayman, whose mythical status has long since surpassed the historical record. Like FlagDick features a beloved figure of early aughts alt-comedy: Flight of the Conchords alumnus Rhys Darby in FlagThe Mighty Boosh’s Noel Fielding in Dick. Like FlagDick is officially set in the first half of the 18th century. And like FlagDick makes a lot of its jokes out of intentionally anachronistic references to our own day.

Here’s where they differ, though: the eponymous protagonist hasn’t chosen literal highway robbery in a conscious rejection of the staid existence his family’s wealth has made possible. His father John (Mark Heap) is a butcher who had planned to teach and eventually leave Dick the family business, but Dick is a vegan who’d rather sculpt miniature villages out of vegetables. Dick has just left home to make his fortune, stopping on the way at the local pub to tell the story to Little Karen (Kiri Flaherty), the child who runs the place, when a gang of highwaymen bursts in. Its leader, Tom King (David Threlfall), shoots his underling (Harry Trevaldwyn) for asking to be called Steven and not Steve, and tries to draft Little Karen to replace him. Dick gallantly volunteers to take her place: thus is an eventual legend born. As he plies his new trade around Hempstead, he makes friends or foes of beloved British character actors, past Fielding collaborators and multiple Taskmaster alums.

Though he started in comedy, Fielding is probably best known now as a co-host of The Great British Bake Off (or Baking Show, as it’s known in the U.S.), and I gather from the unscientific sample of people I know that he’s a somewhat divisive figure. The segment of the Bake Off viewership who only grudgingly endure him there should know that he’s somehow even more himself here than he is as himself, in the Bake Off tent. Watching it as someone who is pro-Fielding, however, it was hard not to contrast him with Nicole Byer. After her success hosting another baking competition, Nailed It!, Byer had to make it clear to parents who watched the show with their kids that her stand-up comedy shows were not appropriate for children. But whereas The Mighty Boosh featured characters like Old Gregg (a homicidal Bailey’s Irish Cream enthusiast with homicidal tendencies) and the Crack Fox (self-explanatory), parents of the kids who love Fielding on Bake Off will find nothing too objectionable here. 

People who get struck by intentional gunfire generally live; the most memorable gun-related death is accidental. Obviously, there are double entendres on Dick’s name (e.g., “I won’t rest until I’ve got this Dick firmly in my grasp”), but while two members of the gang Dick ends up joining are cross-dressers, no one engages in any behavior that even approaches sex — a major contrast with Flag and its many happy, lusty couples. Fielding is often outclassed by the award-winning performers among his scene partners, but his seeming lack of vanity or concern about this is congruent with his interpretation of Dick, improvising his way through his potentially dangerous new career with easygoing cheerfulness and unshakeable confidence.

The show looks very expensive and polished — especially the costumes, not all of which look like they could just have been borrowed from Noel Fielding’s wardrobe at home — and it’s attracted some top-shelf British talent: Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey), Tamsin Greig (Episodes), Connor Swindell (Sex Education), Asim Chaudhry (People Just Do Nothing), Diane Morgan (Cunk On Earth), Jessica Hynes (Spaced). It’s just not that funny. Or: It’s not supposed to be that funny to adults? For example: When Dick spends most of an episode separated from the gang, fellow members Nell (Ellie White) and Honesty (Duayne Boachie) set out to find him, Honesty engaging in an elaborate word association process that accidentally works perfectly. One Dick antagonist, removed from his position for rank failure, doesn’t vow revenge against anyone, but shrugs that it will give him time to be a more hands-on father. Another episode revolves around the arrival in Hempstead of a witch known as the Reddlehag. The gang is told that they can keep her outside the pub they’ve sheltered in as long as they don’t say her name 27 times. You can probably guess what all the characters spend the next minute taking turns accidentally doing.

Ultimately, I think I just never got over the disappointment of the opening scene being immediately negated in favor of reality. The idea of Dick having, basically, the chaotic capacity of a live-action Bugs Bunny was thrilling in its goofiness — and if, as you just read above, this is a world with room not only for witches but also warlocks, cursed coaches and bare-knuckle boxers with literal iron fists (terrible smelting accident), why couldn’t the Dick we see in that opening dream sequence be the real Dick of the rest of the series? 

And if that’s not the idea, why make a show that invites being known as Our Flag Means Death, if it had been neutered? “I’ve got an easy charm the mums enjoy,” Dick tells a new acquaintance late in the season. Maybe this show is for your mum.


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