TV Reviews: My Wonderful Life and Keeping Mum

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The Independent Culture
For a pen portrait of ITV's newest sitcom, let me hand you over to its creator, Simon Nye. "My Wonderful Life is the bastard offspring of Cardiac Arrest and Roseanne," he says in the programme's publicity material, "with Coronation Street as the wise, fag-smoking midwife!" To which the only printable response is "You wish, pal". But perhaps he meant this as an ironic joke about the bloodstock obsessions of television executives, forever hoping to breed their new shows out of past champions - "Well it's sort of Vicar of Dibley with a Crackerish undertow". In which case, the absence of a tone of voice will have transformed a knowing piece of self-deprecation into unintended boastfulness.

We should give him the benefit of the doubt, partly on past record, and partly because when you watch the programme, you can see what he's getting at with his interbred pedigree. This series had a test run a while ago as a one-off drama, and even then its blend of sombre emotions and sardonic wisecracks made any crude genre classification unsafe. Donna is a nurse with a broken marriage and a smart mouth, negotiating the variable charms of parenthood ("Sometimes I feel like I spend most of me time doing things I really don't want to do") and trying to decide between dull dependable men and exciting unreliable ones. Roger is an earnest doctor whose idea of flirtation is to poke his head round the door and issue weather bulletins ("Don't forget your brollies tomorrow, because there's a 45 per cent chance of rain"), while Lawrie is an over-sexed ambulance man whose idea of flirtation is to hustle Donna into the nearest available linen cupboard. Last night, Donna tried an experiment in domestication, inviting Lawrie round for ready-meal salmon in puff pastry and freezer cabinet tiramisu. "Sitting and eating?" says a friend warily, "you've only ever done drinking and lying down." It conveys something of the atmosphere of wry disenchantment that she ends up alone in a child's bunk, reading a teen comic.

It's difficult to say yet whether it will quite come off (although there was a certain astringent charm to Amanda Swift's opening script), but Emma Wray's winning performance as Donna gives it every chance, and it has to be said that it is a relief to watch a comedy which is brave enough to dispense with the safety rail of the laugh track.

Keeping Mum (BBC1) does have audience laughter, but it would be unreasonable to accuse it of cowardice on those grounds alone. Given that it is a sitcom about senility and filial guilt (the word Alzheimer's is not uttered, but circles ominously overhead), those involved can be forgiven for feeling the need of some barrier between them and the precipitous drop into melancholy that is only inches away. Most of the comedy derives from the distracted logic of Stephanie Cole's character, a mumsy amnesiac who replaces most substantive nouns with the word "wossname", and hums the wedding march whenever her son is in the same room as a woman, or, indeed, mentioned in the same sentence.

She is looked after by Andrew, a mildly depressive figure who alternates between furious exasperation and helpless guilt. His brother (David Haig) is a paragon of self-righteous egoism, given to turning away pleas for assistance with a bit of well-polished psycho-babble: "Help is an emotive and subjective word Andy," he says, when his brother sends up a distress flare after a particularly aggravating day. Like My Wonderful Life, Keeping Mum doesn't play this simply for laughs - television has given us infuriating old bats before, but Cole's performance is never just clownish. Her moments of lucidity include a wistful recognition of how close she is to being pushed out into the snow, a fact which checks your instinct to laugh too casually at her misadventures (such as boiling a plastic kettle by putting it on top of a gas ring). The result is a programme that is only intermittently funny, to be honest, but at least has larger ambitions for what popular comedy can do.