The action centres on a London flat owned by misanthrope and serial anecdote pilferer Vince Clark, a man who hates whistlers and has the complaints departments of local haulage firms on speed-dial. Anything coming between him and his lazy existence is seen off with shocking levels of sarcasm. Unluckily for Vince, played by Sean Lock, he finds himself sharing his tower-block home with his exact opposite: the relentlessly optimistic Errol Spears, a man incapable of saying no. This leads, among other things, to Errol accommodating a holidaying neighbour’s cactus collection. Despite the best efforts of Vince to quell the helpful nature of his downtrodden tenant, Errol takes his every setback with renewed vigour.
As if to underscore 15 Storeys High’s unwillingness to conform to standard sitcom tropes, the very first episode centres on Vince selling the flat’s sole sofa, that very cornerstone of conventional sitcommery, insisting the purchaser take it the moment it is paid for. “You can’t just dump your furniture in the middle of my flat,” he says.
Vince and Errol (played by Benedict Wong) are joined by a rich cast of oddballs: their largely nameless, fellow high-rise residents, each a much more rounded character than is usual for a modern sitcom. There’s Kevin Eldon’s jobbing repairman; Felix Dexter’s determined Jehovah’s Witness; Peter Serafinowicz’s scummy pop impresario; and, perhaps best of all, Pearce Quigley as a delinquent vicar who keeps confusing Jesus and Judas. “I have the same problem with Robson and Jerome,” Vince tells him. “What, knowing which one’s evil?” replies the holy man. “No, which one’s Robson and which one’s Jerome. They’re both evil.”
The show was given the tough love treatment by the BBC throughout its two-series run: it started on BBC Choice, then the digital outlet for all the flotsam the BBC didn’t know what to do with, and was then aired at stupid o’clock on Sunday night on BBC2. By the time the second series came around, premiering on what had become BBC3, there seemed no real home for it, despite the second six-episode series proving even more compelling than the first.
Lock, burned by the experience of pouring months of his life into crafting a series that was haphazardly thrown into the schedules before getting binned, now seems content to forge a living plonked behind a panel show desk delivering barbed observations about topical fare. Wong, following enjoyable comedy turns in Look Around You and The Peter Serafinowicz Show, seems more content to appear in straight roles these days, having popped up in the likes of Prometheus. All of which means 15 Storeys High, which got laughs out of everything from car-boot sales to pigeon droppings to swimming lessons, seems destined to have been very much one of a kind: an artistically shot kitchen-sink sitcom that managed to be gutwrenchingly funny and brilliantly imaginative. Take Vince’s advice for potential goldfish owners: “You get one goldfish and it’s lonely. You get two and they don’t get on. You get a third and it’s two on one. You get a fourth and it’s a borstal.”