The success of Valentino is a welcome shot in the arm for this year's line-up of Ramadan television series.
In a landscape of flashy dramas and shows by a new generation of social media savvy stars, such as Yasmine Sabri, Dina El Sherbiny and Ramez Galal, Valentino stands out due to its affectionate old school approach and seasoned stars.
Led by Egyptian film and television stalwarts Adel Imam, 80, and Dalal Abdul Aziz, 60, this dry satire is not reliant on any modern tropes of regional showbusiness.
Neither star has a social media account, the show's theme tune is not sung by a pop star as the latest trend has dictated (it’s actually an orchestral score), and laughs come not from fanciful scenarios but rather from a well-crafted script executed by a quality cast.
While television ratings are a closely guarded secret in the regional industry, a key indicator of a show's success can be found in the buzz created online. With Valentino the third largest trending hashtag of the Egyptian Twittersphere on Saturday, April 2, the show can be readily be described as a victory. Such success is all the more significant, considering the series was supposed to air last year before it was scrapped due to a number of production setbacks.
The refined artistry of Adel Imam
Aired nightly on MBC 1, Valentino stars Imam as the show's namesake. He is the owner of a number of international schools in Egypt and is looking to expand his empire through some shady business deals. However, Valentino's gravy train is at risk of being halted by something more feared than the police – it is his domineering wife Afifa (Abdel Aziz) who also happens to be the school principal.
The couple's numerous testy exchanges in each episode provide much of the laughs in Valentino. Abdel Aziz's full-throttled take on Afifa brings out many of Imam's much-loved comedic trademarks: the fidgety neuroticism, masterly physical comedy and the throwaway, razor-sharp punch line.
The fact that it all looks so effortless, Abdel Aziz states, is what gives Imam his stature.
"The way that he operates is just very distinctive and refined. It has an originality to it and seeing it up close, you realise that he is truly an artist," she says. "I enjoy working with him because he is humble and brings to the set this amazing positive energy that makes it all a joy."
A lot of that laid-back vibe is also down to the intimate nature of the set. Many of the scenes were shot in Imam’s own suburban Cairo residence and neighbourhood, and the series marks Imam's ninth collaboration with his director son, Ramy Imam.
“There was a real family spirit to the whole work,” Abdel Aziz confirms. “Ramy has become a fine director and he knows how to use his skills in maintaining that atmosphere on location because that family feeling is central to the story.”
A comedy with a message
When it comes to her zany character, Abdel Aziz describes the role as a departure from her norm. An actor known for her hefty dramatic work in taut dramas such as 2015's Haq Mayet and 2012's Uraft Al Bahr with the late Nour El Sherif, Abdel Aziz says dialling up the humour on set was no laughing matter.
This was down to the script by esteemed writer and poet Ayman Bahgat Amar, who uses comedy to touch on a number of topics, from the notion of the perfect Arab family (hint: despite appearances, Valentino’s brood are anything but) and a private education industry valuing profit above all else.
In playing the principal Afifa, Abdel Aziz says she worked hard to channel the right levels of malevolence and absurdity that are key to her role.
"Comedy is one of the most difficult of the performance arts," she says. "Because it is a world of its own and there are so many different ways to do it. What makes it harder is that when it is done, to deliver a targeted social message.”
With 10 episodes aired and another 20 to go, Valentino seems to have found that balance between humour and pathos and is cruising to become one of this year's most assured hits.
Valentino airs daily throughout Ramadan at 9.30pm on MBC 1