Parents: When the joke's too close to home

Sky's Parents is the latest TV comedy to feature hard-up adults forced to return to mum and dad. Jay Richardson looks at the rise of the 'parasitecoms'

Jay Richardson
Wednesday 30 May 2012 07:29
Parents: Situation comedies are social barometers
Parents: Situation comedies are social barometers

"Simon always said he'd leave the country before moving back to Essex. It used to be India but he recently mentioned Paris as his preferred hiding place. He'd hate people seeing him return with the stench of failure upon him."

Dan Swimer chuckles. The notion that his Grandma's House co-writer, Simon Amstell, could follow the Simon Amstell he plays in the acclaimed sitcom and return to his grandmother's suburban semi if his career falters is ridiculous. Isn't it?

Compounding character and actor, as the show has done so mercilessly, Swimer adds: "He's massively aspirational and those few years in Hampstead where he had money in his pocket and a great flat were cherished times. Much as Simon would hate to admit it, he's used to his little luxuries, his expensive vitamins and expensive beans. We made a point this series of having him strapped for cash and doing without things."

Bleakly absurd as Grandma's House has been, it reflects the reality of a growing number of twenty and thirtysomething adults, the so-called Boomerang Generation who've forsaken dreams of property ownership to return to the family nest. The Office for National Statistics reveals a 30 per cent increase in the number of multigenerational households in the past decade, with more than 500,000 UK households now containing three generations, a figure expected to rise over the next 10 years.

Situation comedies are social barometers. It was inevitable that comedy writers would seize upon this potential for cross-generational friction, overcrowded confrontations and the stigma of regressed development with a rash of "parasitecoms". As Swimer notes, there was just more "mischief" to be had from Amstell living at his grandmother's all the time, with the sexually repressed, 32-year-old "former funnyman" trying to smuggle a cocksure 16-year-old boy out of his tiny bedroom without anyone noticing.

In July, Sky1 unveils Parents, in which Sally Phillips plays Jenny, a sacked executive whose husband has blown their savings on energy drink entrepreneurship, forcing them and their teenage children to abandon Notting Hill for her parents in Kettering. Parents' writers, Lloyd Woolf and Joe Tucker, also have a forthcoming pilot for Comedy Central, provisionally titled Big Bad World, in which a recent graduate (The Inbetweeners' Blake Harrison) is forced to return to the family abode.

Stand-up Jason Manford has recorded a pilot for ITV, Naked House, in which a dad fallen on hard times returns north with his young family to live with his retired mother and father. Played by Russ Abbot and Jan Francis, the unlikely twist is that they've embraced naturism. And in the US, former Scrubs star Sarah Chalke is shooting How to Live with Your Parents, playing a recently divorced single mother taken in by her eccentric mom and pop.

"We didn't sit down to write a credit-crunch sitcom," Woolf says of Parents. "But it definitely hits on something that's prevalent in people's minds. If the show had come out in 2006 it would have been considered far-fetched. But everyone knows somebody who's skint. Living with your parents isn't all that rare."

It was rarer in 2009, when BBC2 broadcast the prophetic yet overlooked Home Time by Emma Fryer and Neil Edmond. Gaynor (Fryer) had fled Coventry for London at 17 but returned abruptly at 29. Low-key and bittersweet, the series was critically acclaimed and award-nominated but never lodged in the public consciousness and wasn't recommissioned. Gaynor's reasons for returning weren't explicitly financial and kept vague until the end.

Multigenerational households are nothing new in sitcom. But hitherto, the trend has been for older characters inflicted upon younger ones, to endearing effect in the likes of Only Fools and Horses and Frasier, less so in ITV's more recent, painfully old-fashioned Teenage Kicks. We should certainly expect to see more like Sky1 Starlings, Matt King and Steve Edge's affectionate comedy-drama about an over-crowded, working-class Derbyshire family who take in Grandad after anincident at the retirement home.

Sorry! with Ronnie Corbett remains the template for all middle-aged men tied to their mother's apron strings. But Timothy Lumsden never left home in the first place. Parasitecoms are the domain of younger writers, especially if they've spent time struggling to make it in London.

"I was always the broke friend," recalls stand-up Nat Luurtsema, whose book, Cuckoo in the Nest, an account of spending six months with her parents in Watford as a 28-year-old, is being touted as a possible film. "The change didn't feel as shocking to me as it did to friends with proper jobs. OK, it was weird to be treated like a child again but I would get in my car, drive to a gig and tell my silly jokes. I can't imagine what it would have been like in my childhood bedroom, putting a suit on, picking up a briefcase and having 20 staff under me, knowing that my mum was ironing my pyjamas.

"You quickly fall into the old roles, you're the child and they're the parent. If you try to change your role in any way, their roles get shifted as well, the dynamic becomes chaotic, nobody knows where they stand and everyone gets snappy. I found I could be 'daughter me' or 'girlfriend me' but I couldn't be both at the same time."

The central dynamic in Parents is between Jenny and her mother, Alma, played by Coronation Street's Susie Blake. Alma strives to mould her career-woman daughter into a contented housewife, while her husband Len (Tom Conti), a retired engineer, nurtures a very different conception of modern masculinity to Jenny's husband, Nick (Darren Strange). Dormant resentments, suppressed over two decades, resurface.

Ironically, Woolf reflects, Len and Alma are victims of their own parenting. "They've made a very middle-class daughter who's educated and sophisticated in ways that they're not." And their spread of personalities ought to appeal to a broad audience. The best parasitecoms will simultaneously empathise with the frustrations of every generation.

Sky likens Parents to Modern Family, its imported US hit about a contemporary clan of three families connected by its divorced patriarch. "We certainly wanted that feeling when you watch a brilliant American sitcom," Woolf enthuses. "Even though it's pre-watershed, there's nothing dumbed down and you're getting the full complexity of the relationships."

Crammed into our living rooms with screaming toddlers and bickering grandparents, we can at least take heart from knowing that collective family viewing is returning. Until the housing market recovers anyway.

'Parents' begins on Sky1 in July; series two of 'Grandma's House' is out now

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