Review

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The Independent Culture
Returning for its second series, Common as Muck (BBC1) faced problems familiar to any warm-hearted, ensemble tragi-comedy of Northern life (this sounds as if it couldn't be a genre, but it is - just think of Debbie Horsfield's The Riff Raff Element and Tim Firth's The Preston Front). The most pressing of these is story fatigue - if your first series carried the characters in a contained arc from despair to moderated triumph, then where exactly do you go next? How do you wind the spring back up? In any case, you may find that you have exhausted the dramatic resources of your central conceit (in this instance, garbage collection), fiction having a much shorter attention span than life itself. William Ivory's solution, demonstrated in the opening episodes of the second series, was to break his likeable construction down to its component parts and start all over again. True, he began with a moment of nostalgic collective emotion: Nev's last day ("Sod off Nev" read the home-made banner) was inaugurated with a ground-level fly-past of vintage refuse vehicles, preceded by a formation team of street vacuums trailing plumes of red, white and blue smoke. But things got grim and brittle very quickly.

"The rubbish business is finished," the men were told, their competitors having decided, for reasons of plot convenience, to compete. They were left with the problem of coming up with an alternative use for their assets - muscle-power, a large yard, several vehicles and a good knowledge of the local street plan. As they run through their options, no one mentions the obvious solution - to go into the removals business - because that franchise has already been taken up by ITV in Moving Story. It isn't long before the team is breaking up in disillusion and mutual bitterness. "I've had enough of all this 'one for all'," says Jonno, rather literally announcing that the team has been dissolved.

This week, the restoration began, in an episode that raised some large questions about the ability of such series to mix whimsy with social realism. Is it possible, for example, for a drama to mount a convincing debate about the arbitrary mercy of the deity, when its own sense of invention appears so capricious? At one moment in last night's episode, Jonno, badly off the rails, is seen sitting in the bottom of a freshly dug grave, weeping at his problems. But this scene (and a much subtler one, in which he wretchedly seeks absolution from a Catholic priest, despite the fact that he isn't a Catholic himself) sat oddly with the principal plot development, in which Ken was granted almost miraculous powers of artistry. Indubitably miraculous, according to the crowds who gather to look at his copy of the creation scene from the Sistine ceiling, which he has incorporated into the re-decoration of the local church. Ivory makes this the occasion for some mild satire about religious credulity but there isn't actually a perspective from which it wouldn't look like a miracle - you keep waiting for Ken to confess sheepishly that he hired an art student to do it but it remains, incredibly, all his own work. Indeed, the plot contained not just one miracle, but two - Bernard, the retarded boy, discovers in himself an equally prodigious gift for caricature, completing the ceiling with an impressive cartoon when Ken loses his nerve.

In an outright fantasy, this sort of majestic dispensation of benevolence might pass, but in a drama which wants you to care about the genuine predicaments of unemployed men (and which, at its best, can make you) it is damn near fatal. Jonno wasn't in that grave because life is dour and difficult, it seems, but because it suited the writer to put him there for a while. Ken's triumph isn't a poignant assertion of identity (as it would have been had his painting been less perfect) but a gift from above. "All that power, all them choices, perfection at your fingertips," says one of the characters, railing at God's absence during his wife's painful death. But the line only reminds you that a writer is a kind of god too - one capable of his own kinds of dereliction.

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