The Weekend's Television: Best – His Mother's Son, Sun, BBC2
Reggie Perrin, Fri, BBC1
Damned and united
Monday 27 April 2009
It was an unlucky coincidence that Best – His Mother's Son should have featured an early shot in which a young boy kicked a football against the wall of a terraced house, an image that also featured significantly in Guy Hibbert's recent drama Five Minutes of Heaven and which instantly jabbed me into some invidious comparisons.
Both were dramas from Northern Ireland and both took real lives as their starting point. But whereas Hibbert's drama launched off from hard facts into larger truths, Terry Cafolla's film remained penned in by biographical fidelity. In the end, it somehow seemed smaller than the tale than it was telling, partly because it consciously offered the back-story to a larger and better-known melodrama, but also because it never seemed entirely sure what to do with the material it had.
That oddly broken-backed title was one clue to the problem, the dash betraying a calculation. We have to get Best above the title, they must have thought. His is the name that's going to sell the programme to an audience (and his was the face, as it happens, which sold it on to the front page of the Radio Times, a big coup for a one-off drama). On the other hand, we'd better make it clear – for trades-descriptions purposes, if nothing else – that this isn't the George Best biopic that so many people have struggled to make. It isn't his submission to alcohol that is relevant here so much as that of his mother, a woman who didn't take her first drink until she was over 40 but then took to it with such zeal that she was dead in 10 years.
Cafolla's theory here was that Ann Best was a victim of passive celebrity, driven to drink by the fallout from her son's sudden fame. At first, the press are just a novel nuisance ("It took me two minutes to walk to the shops and 10 to get through me own garden"), but then the novelty fades, and passers-by start to make catty remarks instead of friendly ones. Her son has become a public property and in Belfast she is his public representative. When she discovers that a glass of sherry takes the edge off her anxiety, she also finds that she can't stop at one glass. Before very long there are bottles hidden behind the washing machine and she's finding unexplained bruises when she wakes from a bender.
Michelle Fairley played her well, but she really didn't have a lot to work with other than the melancholy clichés of the alcoholic downward spiral. The assumption that it was George's fame, and not a deeper-rooted or more personal sorrow that triggered her drinking, meant you were left entirely on the outside looking in, and since you knew that this dispiriting slide would end in all-round disappointment there wasn't much to do but endure it. Ann's own sporting talent – as a hockey player – gets one mention, but there's no real exploration of the possibility that her son's triumph suddenly crystallised a regret that had long lain dormant. In a sense, the drama replicates her original plight – she ceases to be herself and becomes merely George Best's mother, her tragedy humoured by us because we hope that it might throw light on the one we're truly fascinated by.
Comparisons are all but unavoidable in the case of Reggie Perrin, a remake of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, with Martin Clunes making the bold attempt to fill Leonard Rossiter's boots. I don't know if I can stress enough what a depressing idea this is on paper. A television channel should always have the ambition to create its own fond memories rather than lazily refurbish those from 30 years ago. And if you do go the recycling route you're likely to find that the fond memories of five years ago will probably get in the way. When David Nobbs's sitcom first went out, its bleak take on the purgatory of office life had very few rivals. The remake has to compete not only with memories of its own source, but also of The Office, a comedy that effectively rewrote the rules about how you could tackle the anomie of the nine-to-five.
It really is a bit surprising, then, that Reggie Perrin should work as well as it does. Martin Clunes helps a lot. He looks funny when he's glum, in a way that's sufficiently different to Leonard Rossiter. And the script – a collaboration between Simon Nye and David Nobbs – has some good lines in it. Reggie doesn't work at Sunshine Desserts anymore (though he walks past the sign on his way to the office), but at a grooming products company. CJ is younger and rather less dependent on his "I didn't get where I am today" catchphrase, and Reggie's toadying subordinates have been replaced by an unconvincing pair of marketing-types. It's not a disaster, by any means, which may be the best you can hope for from such an unimaginative commission.
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