Motherland Christmas special review: A festive alternate reality that is funny to boot

The slapstick carnage in this one-off episode – there’s a broken nose, a toppled tree and an explosion of flour – is not as funny as the more low-key moments

Alexandra Pollard
Wednesday 23 December 2020 21:31
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<p>Parent trap: from left, Tanya Moodie, Anna Maxwell Martin, Diane Morgan and Paul Ready</p>

Parent trap: from left, Tanya Moodie, Anna Maxwell Martin, Diane Morgan and Paul Ready

The Motherland Christmas special (BBC Two) feels like The Ghost of Christmas Cancelled. Almost nothing in it would be allowed under the UK’s current coronavirus restrictions. The school concert where kids dressed as Herod/Hugh Hefner huddle together and warble off-key? Nope. Both sets of parents coming round for Christmas, cramming the fridge with their on-the-turn leftovers? Absolutely not. Yummy mummy Amanda’s agonising “festive gathering chez moi”? Dream on.

I don’t know whether writers Sharon Horgan, Helen Serafinowicz, Holly Walsh and Barunka O’Shaughnessy – who have already written two stellar series of this droll sitcom about middle-class motherhood – deliberately ignored the current state of things, or if this one-off episode was made in those heady pre-pandemic days. Either way, it’s a welcome respite, a festive alternate reality that is funny to boot.

As usual, Anna Maxwell Martin steals the show as Julia, the fraught, frenetic mother of two (at least I think it’s two – the kids aren’t really relevant and she doesn’t seem all that fussed about them). Julia and Christmas are a delightfully disastrous combination, her manic energy and propensity for colourful outbursts only made worse by enforced festive fun. While her husband Paul (Oliver Chris) does some last-minute shopping – might she be interested, he asks down the phone, in a signed Antony Worrall Thompson salt pig? – she is responsible for preparing Christmas dinner for her family, her in-laws and her own surly mum (Ellie Haddington). A request for less crispy towels is the final straw. “Can you just give me nine hours to spirit up Christmas and then I can dust off my towel loom and weave you one with the hair from a baby’s arsehole,” she says with that wide-eyed rictus grin of hers.

Motherland Christmas special trailer

Instead of dusting off her loom, Julia abandons preparations altogether, cheerily shouting to her in-laws that she’s off to kill herself and heading out the door to Amanda’s Christmas eve party (Lucy Punch plays Amanda, an uptight, tragi-comic nightmare). She drags her mates along with her – laid-back Liz (Diane Morgan), earnest Kevin (Paul Ready) and heavy-drinking Meg (Tanya Moodie). Amanda’s Christmas decorations make Melania Trump’s look positively cosy, and the red wine being sloshed around by the gatecrashers is basically Chekhov’s gun to her pristine carpets.

The carnage that ensues – there’s a broken nose, a toppled tree and an explosion of flour – is actually not as funny as the more low-key moments. Motherland excels at passive aggression and misanthropic one-liners, not slapstick and set-pieces. Julia’s declaration that she would definitely volunteer at a homeless shelter “if I didn’t have the kids… and was a nicer person… who could be arsed” is funnier by far than Meg drunkenly throwing herself onto a 10-foot Christmas tree and yelling “timber”.

No matter. Motherland is still as zippy and witty as ever. It makes me miss excruciating parties.

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