Every episode of Jimmy McGovern's crime-and/ or-punishment anthology drama Accused begins with its protagonist in the dock, and then unfurls the story in flashback. We know already that things are going to end badly, because: (1) the protagonist is in the dock; and (2) it's by Jimmy McGovern – and nothing by Jimmy McGovern ever ends well. Of the UK's great television writers, McGovern is perhaps the most adept at evoking melancholy and dread. Nothing he produces could ever quite be described as enjoyable, but it's invariably compelling.
The protagonist in this case was Simon (Sean Bean), a mild-mannered gay English teacher, who by day recited Wordsworth and Tennyson to classrooms of bored teenagers and, by his own admission, "couldn't get a wank in a brothel". By night, however, Simon became Tracie Tremarco, Manchester's butchest blonde bombshell, tottering from bar to bar on six-inch heels, lonely as a cloud. Tracie, she boasted, "is a good-time girl", but she'd never be mistaken for a woman.
When the bashful Tony (Stephen Graham) offered Tracie a taxi-ride home, she guessed correctly that he was a closeted gay man. The two of them fell into bed, and then into a rather sweet offbeat relationship, albeit with the promise of a court case looming in the viewer's mind. But when Simon spotted Tony in the street, he followed him to the beauty parlour where his wife worked – the wife that Tony had told Tracie was dead. No matter: she soon would be.
For all McGovern's great writing, the brilliance of Accused was in its casting. You couldn't pick two more manly actors than Sean Bean and Stephen Graham. Bean is best known for fantasy-historical hardmen like Sharpe, Boromir (The Lord of the Rings) and Ned Stark (Game of Thrones). Graham, whose previous turns include Al Capone in Boardwalk Empire and vicious racist Combo in This Is England, is Liverpool's answer to the young Bob Hoskins. It'd be hard to imagine a less likely pair of lovers – Kanye and Kim, maybe? – but they were perfectly cast against type. In fact, Bean the square-jawed transvestite was a lot more plausible than Bean the sexless English teacher.
And via barely plausible teachers, we arrive at Gates, Sky Living's new sitcom about the parents and staff of a congenial city primary, and the 15-minute social minefield they're forced to navigate at the beginning and end of each school day. Gates had the potential to be a new Outnumbered, with its harried middle-class parents, and its ensemble's impeccable comedy pedigree: Sue Johnston (The Royle Family); Joanna Page (Gavin & Stacey); Tony Gardner (Lead Balloon; Fresh Meat).
In the first episode, builder and new parent Mark (Tom Ellis, him off Miranda) was cornered on the school run by two terrifying mums: a militantly mustard-keen Aussie who organises coffee mornings and salsa-cise evenings, and an uncomfortably tactile art therapist. The teacher (Johnston) is perpetually hung- over. The headmaster is barely out of short trousers himself, and eager to please Ofsted with his "School and Home Partnership Workshop Week" (aka Parents' Week). The only sane people in the school are the pupils.
I laughed out loud once – at the headmaster's bowing and scraping before a bemused Ofsted inspector – and smiled once or twice more. Gates hasn't quite decided whether it's a realist cringe comedy, or a semi-surrealist one. A lot of sitcom pilots disappoint, but they can improve with age. The second series of both the BBC's Episodes and Grandma's House, for example, have been received far more warmly than their first. Gates is still only half an idea, middlingly executed, but given time it might settle into something more watchable. Outnumbered, though, it ain't.
Accused BBC1 Gates Sky Living