Television: Listen with mother, for adults only
Sunday 25 January 1998
This hurt. For a man of a certain age, to be accused of an obsession with sex and sex organs is worrying. Especially when he isn't aware of it himself. Is he perhaps not getting enough? "Is it not odd that desire should so long outlive performance?" as Shakespeare put it. At the very least it all sounds a little pathetic; sex, as we know, is for the young.
So, nervously, I submitted my work for this newspaper and its sister to a close textual analysis. How often, in just under 600 pieces, had I mentioned "penis" or "nipples"? The outcome of this search was reassuring. "Penis" logged in at a pathetic dozen entries; "nipples" at only three more. True, there were 34 "balls" - but by way of self-exculpation I must point out that these spherical references were mostly sporting.
Other parts of the body appeared more often. There were two more jaws than penises, and only one fewer than there were nipples. Hands scored highest (176), but only because of the wider metaphorical and idiomatic use of that word (there is no such phrase as "all nipples to the pump", or "nicking anything he could lay his penis on"). But "shoulder" cropped up an astonishing 35 times. In other words five per cent of all the articles that I have written in the last three years contain the word "shoulder". And yet this unconscious fetish has entirely escaped the notice of my readers, including the pleasant remonstratrix from Essex.
This elaborate introduction has been written to save me from the criticism that must otherwise inevitably follow any attempt to review BBC1's latest - incredibly rude - sitcom, Unfinished Business, which began on Sunday. Written by Marks and Gran, starring Harriet Walter and Art Malik, this is another in the new genre of post-watershed comedies, or - as some have begun to call them - "adult comedies".
But before the comedy can begin, we must have a situation. (Where would we be without a situation, after all? All we'd have is characters, and that would never do.) And do we have a situation here. Divorced woman Amy (Walter), has a twentyish daughter (Elisabeth Dermot-Walsh), who ran off with Mum's younger lover, Tam (Malik). Amy is reunited with former husband (Henry Goodman), who has now been dumped by mistress and who may now want to get back together with his wife. This is so complicated that laborious exegeses are required from the characters to help us understand it. So she reminds him of "when you ran off to Paris with your shorthand typist". Can he really have forgotten? Nope.
The situation exists to tell a story of mid-life crisis, dysfunctional sex lives, messy divorces, messier reconciliations, and people who - unwittingly - talk too much about penises and nipples. Amy's line, "that's the closest I've come to an orgasm all year," could be said to sum the thing up.
In episode one the filthiest (sorry, "most adult") lines occurred in the dialogue between Amy and her guilty daughter. (Casting was a problem here because Amy is supposed to be 45, though Walter doesn't look a day over 32, and the daughter is 23 - though she doesn't look a day under 32. They should be twins.)
The following bits of dialogue represent the whole. Amy says of Tam, "I won't eat him." And her daughter, Rachel, replies, "no matter how many times he begged you to." Take it from me, a line like this has never been heard in a primetime TV sitcom before. We are on the brink of a new sub-genre here. Sitcome? Here's another line. Rachel: "I'm really glad you came at last." Her mother: "Where have I heard that phrase before? Oh yes. It was Tam."
Finally, the naughtiest of all. Daughter: "What do you want to drink?" Mother: "A weak spritzer." Daughter: "Here's to Daddy!" Mother: "Talking of weak spritzers!"
For those not familiar with German or Yiddish, this means that the husband was not a grand, er, ejaculator. So, in five minutes, mother and child have mentioned fellatio, the female orgasm and the force of ejaculation. No wonder they're all a bit screwed up. And no wonder that we critics find ourselves talking about sex. And then we get blamed for it. T'aint fair.
Strangely, the programme managed to be oddly inoffensive and safe. Sex isn't dangerous or dark here. No one really does it; it's just wanted by those who can't get it. Still, there are some nice moments, and - in Walter - some good acting. So I'll stick with it, even if it is a bit of a weak spritzer.
But ruderies are not confined to the late side of the nine o'clock watershed. The Vicar of Dibley (BBC1, Thurs) had its fair share of them. "The secret of a successful marriage," the adoring groom-to-be, Hugo, was told by an elderly farmer, "is sex and plenty of it!" But, he continues, "with all kinds of women, preferably Orientals!" With this advice, Hugo married Alice and the current series came to an end, a ratings success, and probably the sitcom with widest appeal since Only Fools and Horses.
Its secret has been a very clever and appealing fusion of Archerian traditional images - such as the village, the parish council, farmers, etc - with the modern in the shape of the wordly woman vicar, and her relationships. And there is nothing structurally complex about this. The "situation" is simply that there is a woman vicar in a village. Around that proposition an ensemble has gradually been created that almost matches Dad's Army for the comic integrity of each of its characters. There's the deadpan and disapproving chairman of the parish council, the Urkish Cold Comfort farmers (wonderful stuff from Trevor Peacock and Roger Lloyd Pack), and - best of all - Emma Chambers's blonde village idiot Alice, the epitomy of comic innocence, a quality that is far more attractive and redolent with possibilities than the standard gormlessness of too much TV sitcom. Chambers's dialogues with Dawn French have become small masterpieces, reminding me, once again, of Arthur Lowe and John le Mesurier.
That's why the wedding itself worked so well, ascending into a believable surrealism. "Wild Thing" was sung by the choir, the bridesmaids were dressed as Teletubbies, the wedding dress had "I love Hugo" embroidered on it. Finally, there was Alice's gentle subversion of the wedding vows, in which - by saying the words first - the vicar found herself repeating them. It was both funny and touching. And, once again, modern.
There were no straying body-parts in Looking After Jo Jo (BBC2, Mon), the second part of a tremendous saga of a charming petty criminal's descent into gangsterdom. But there was certainly plenty of bad language (unless "fock" and "fockin'" are actually Scots words for knitting or car maintenance).
It reminded me that there are, essentially, two TV Scotlands. One consists of crofts among the heather, wee boats, Scottie dogs, concerned doctors, craggy individualists, men called Angus and dark-eyed Morags. The other Scotland, located on another planet, is a grim assembly of high rise blocks, metal doors, razors on skin, stubbly losers, doomed young criminals, girls on the game, burning motor cars and corrupt policemen.
Idly, I fell to wondering what would happen if these two Scotlands came into collision. Could the characters of Taggart - a series that has outlived its original hero by several years now - find a home for themselves battering down the doors of drug-running herring fishermen? How would Hamish Macbeth and his wee dog survive a week in the tenements of Jo Jo's Edinburgh? Actually, this trick was accomplished once: in the fabulous Tutti Frutti, in which Scotland, for once, seemed like one country, and Emma Thompson and Robbie Coltrane covered it from end to end.
And when that one country finally gains its independence, can we not send Pauline Collins to be The Ambassador (BBC1, Sun) there? This week our woman in Dublin discovered that her rebellious son Nate (all stage recrimination) had been working in a bar associated with drug-running. But, of course, it transpired in the end that he was not himself a drug-seller. And doesn't that show you that reality is so much more interesting than some formulaic, primetime TV drama? As Jack Straw will readily attest. At which point I only have one, no, two more things to add. Nipples, and, er ... Maybe not.
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