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August is a rotten time for TV critics

There's an old saying that the best part of going on holiday is coming home.

Whoever came up with that rubbish wasn't a TV critic, just returned from two weeks away and sniffing around like a starving dog for titbits in the barren wasteland of the late August schedules.

Primetime on RTE is basically one long chain of repeats, some of them so fresh in the memory they could have been on last week, interrupted by emasculated news broadcasts and breathless promos for new programmes we won't see until September or later.

Even the soaps seem to be stuck on slow spin cycle. In Coronation Street, the tedious Barlows' marriage is in trouble again (yawn) after stringy-necked Deirdre was caught snogging smooth gigolo Lewis, who has since legged it with four grand of bookie Peter's money in the pocket of his silk-lined jacket and quite possibly fleeced poor, smitten Audrey as well.

Over in EastEnders, meanwhile, in a plot development marginally less predictable than the sequence of a set of traffic lights, Phil Mitchell is back on the booze.

This merits a double-yawn, since everyone's favourite Neanderthal thug has also added drug addiction to his repertoire, in what must surely be record-speed descent into hell.

Thank goodness, then, for small mercies like Grandma's House, the new sitcom starring Simon Amstell, who quit Never Mind the Buzzcocks to pursue different projects. Actually, describing this as new is stretching it slightly; there's nothing startlingly original or daring here.

Stand-up comedian with no acting experience writes a sitcom about nothing in particular, in which he plays a character who's about three feet removed from his real persona -- in this case, a TV star who's just quit his job as the host of a successful panel game in search of something more meaningful -- and even has the same name.

A London-based Seinfeld, anyone? The format of Grandma's House (a family sits around a living room trading barbs, quips and insults) also makes it feel like a variant of The Royle Family, only Jewish and middle class.

None of which is to say it isn't very funny. He's not an actor, but Amstell has surrounded himself with people who are, while he and co-writer Dan Swimer have spiced the script with the kind of Woody Allenish one-liners and characters to be found only in uniquely Jewish humour.

Rebecca Front hits the nail on the head as Simon's mother, whom he surprises with the gift of a yellow Smart Car, only to be upstaged by her Brylcreem comb-over fiance Clive (a wonderful performance by James Smith), who presents her with a Toyota Yaris ("My dream car") to go along with the massive sparkler welded to her ring finger.

"Why don't you do something with Martin Clunes?" she entreats Simon when he announces that his new project is a stage play in which all the characters are eggs.

I also especially liked the grandfather, who's response to every purchase, whether it's the Smart Car or the juicer Simon has bought for him, is: "Did you keep the receipt?"

While it's dangerous judging a sitcom on a second episode (especially not having seen the first), Grandma's House is warm, witty, charming and sometimes has an unexpected edge. Worth sticking with.

And speaking of sticking with things, it took a massive act of will to sit through a full half-hour of BBC Northern Ireland's nauseatingly parochial Jackie's the Boy, in which Jackie Fullerton, a man with the personality and charm of a crash dummy, meets locals who have made it big (ie, got stinking rich) in America. Sadly, I don't possess that kind of will and tuned out halfway through Jackie's rendition of Hey Good Lookin' in a Nashville recording studio.

STACEY'S STARS

CORONATION STREET / EASTENDERS * *

GRANDMA'S HOUSE * * * *

JACKIE'S THE BOY *