This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 21st May 2016.
Going Forward: Thursday, BBC Four
Mum: Friday, BBC Two
It’s arguably the fault of Carla Lane and her endless glut of joke-shy sitcoms about unhappy middle-class women that the term “gentle comedy” was, for many years, derided as a euphemism for “not funny”. The truth of the matter is that, at its best, understated, low-key comedy – a more helpful description, I think – is often sharper, funnier and more penetrating than broader examples of the form.
A notable case in point was the BAFTA-winning sitcom Getting On, written by and starring Jo Brand, Joanna Scanlan and Vicki Pepperdine. Based in an NHS geriatric ward, it said more about the struggles and faults of that beleaguered institution, and the nuanced flaws of the human condition, than any number of dramas on the same subject. Plus it was funny, piercingly so.
Now Brand is back with a sequel, Going Forward, which follows droll, kindly Kim Wilde in her new job as a community healthcare worker. Although Scanlan and Pepperdine no longer share co-writing duties, it’s just as witty and humane as Getting On. Like that show, it takes a potentially depressing premise – in this case, a middle-aged married couple with mounting financial woes – and finds something curiously life-affirming at its core.
A large part of its charm is the natural chemistry between Brand and Omid Djalili as her struggling chauffeur husband, Dave. They really do feel like a beleaguered yet happy couple who’ve shared a couch for years. Generously, Brand gave Djalili the funniest scenes in episode one, via his exasperated, almost Pete and Dud-esque conversation with a colleague who insisted that chauffeuring in Iraq is where the jackpot lies.
Despite its warmth, there’s an underlying edge of desperation to Going Forward. Kim and Dave are barely surviving. Kim’s sister is a neurotic mess. Kim’s clients are, of course, lonely, housebound elderly people who rely on her for company. But like all the best comedies of its careworn kind, it finds humour in sadness and vice versa. Without blowing its own trumpet, it’s a sly, compassionate comment on the reality of life for millions of Britons today. There’s nothing gentle about that.
Cut from a similar cloth, Mum is a well-observed new sitcom starring the brilliant Lesley Manville as Cathy, a recently bereaved widow struggling to put her life back together. Once again, it spins a rich seam of comedy from a wholly downbeat premise.
Each episode is set over a few hours inside Cathy’s suburban home, hence why it reminds me of Simon Amstell’s underrated Grandma’s House. Tender and sharp, humane but never sentimental, it revolves around that distinctly British conceit of maintaining politeness in the face of social awkwardness.
It’s full of small talk, inadvertent insensitivity, condescending pettiness and pained smiles (Manville is so good at smiling through anguish). But like Going Forward, it doesn’t look down on its characters. Even Cathy’s horrifically snobbish sister-in-law is tinged with pathos.
Peter Mullan – an actor often typecast as hard-nuts – is a heart-tugging bundle of unrequited love as an old friend of Cathy’s, while newcomer Lisa McGrillis shines with an endearingly tactless performance as the well-meaning girlfriend of Cathy’s son. She’s that rarity, a “stupid” sitcom character written and performed with warmth. That’s Mum all over, really. It’s a gem.