Last Night's Television: The Family, Channel 4
Spooks, BBC 1
Thursday 05 November 2009
"I save the world everyday and keep people safe as they travel across the world," said Sunny, introducing himself in the new series of Channel 4's The Family. Sunny is a security man at Heathrow, but there was a knowing charm about the topspin he gave his job that made you understand why Shay, his wife, might have fallen for him when they met at a family wedding. Unfortunately, "fallen" was the operative word as far as Shay's mother was concerned, an unseen character who loomed over much of this first episode. She felt that Shay could have done much better for herself (something to do with Sikh castes, apparently) and they haven't talked for five and a half years, though even under the unforgiving panopticon of the Channel 4 camera setup (lenses mounted on every wall of the house), not a crack was visible in Sunny and Shay's wonderfully tender relationship. Now they were planning a full-blown Indian wedding to seal the deal, and tensions were rising about whether Shay's mother would relent and come to the party.
This Bollywood tale of star-crossed love was set in the context of a less conventionally romantic relationship – at least in Western terms – that between Arvinder and Sarbjit, Sunny's mum and dad, who met for the first time in the registry office on the day of their wedding. On the face of it, they did not seem to offer a winning portrait of the arranged marriage. "Ho! One cup of tea!" shouted Arvinder as he pedalled away on his exercise bike, eventually calling his slumbering wife on his mobile phone when his bellows for service weren't answered. "Stupid man," she muttered as she rolled out of bed, to receive a lordly order for freshly made parathas. "Where are the plates?" he grumbled as he went into the kitchen. "You bloody live in this house... you should know where the plates are," replied Sarbjit, a grumpily dutiful Indian wife but not a particularly meek one. Arvinder's one declaration of emotional concern – offered during one of the interview sections in which the participants are questioned more closely on their attitudes – was a bit underwhelming too: "I care... I have to care because in the end she is the only one who is going to cook for me."
In fact, there was affection here too, and something much grander in the way they'd absorbed their son's love match, which may not have been their first choice of marital settlement either. Recalling a failed attempt to negotiate with her mother, Shay quoted Arvinder's reaction to her intransigence: "I came to give your daughter back to you, you didn't take her... Now she's mine... from now on she's my responsibility." And then he turned to Shay and promised her that even if Sunny were to leave her, she'd never lack a home. Shay had tears in her eyes, by this time, and so did I to be honest. The last series of The Family was an interesting technical exercise that offered some intriguing glimpses of the fine grain of domestic life. This series is a rich melodrama, full of comedy and already running two nice cliff-hanger storylines. Will Shay's mother unbend in time for the grand event? And will we eventually discover what Sunny's younger brother Tindy has been up to? Rounding off the nuanced account of the family's attitude to love and marriage, he is holding out for an arranged marriage to a good village girl – one uncorrupted by Western ideas of female equality – and in order not to spoil his chances he's having to be very economical indeed with the truth of his current relationships with girls. The whole thing is captivating – its vivid blend of stereotype fulfilled and stereotype denied beautifully illustrated by the scene in which Sunny tried out a turban for his wedding while his mum played a video game on the laptop, her freshly hennaed hair tucked into a Tesco bag to protect the furniture. I do hope Shay's mum was watching – if only to see what she's cut herself off from.
Family values were relevant in Spooks too, never happier than when it is torturing one of its central characters with the imminent destruction of a loved one. In this case, it was Ruth on the rack, wrenched back from idyllic retirement in Cyprus to have her husband shot in front of her eyes and her adoptive son threatened with the same fate. I haven't watched Spooks with great diligence recently but I can't help feeling that around 90 per cent of the team's energies seem to be spent on rescuing each other from hazards they should never have exposed themselves to in the first place. And "intelligence" is not the quality you would attribute to some of the strategies employed. In this episode, Malcolm presented himself at the baddies' safe house, announced that he was there without backup and asked them to swap him for the child. Nice one, Malcolm. Now they've got a 10-year-old and a valuable MI5 case officer.
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