Pandemonium review: BBC comedy is a valiant effort at exploring our current predicament

Show starring Alison Steadman performs the tightrope act of exploiting the humour of our plight without making light of it

Ed Cumming@EdCumming
Thursday 31 December 2020 07:13
<p>Lockdown in the dumps: the family are forced to swap California for Margate</p>

Lockdown in the dumps: the family are forced to swap California for Margate

There have been programmes made about lockdown, most successfully Staged, with David Tennant and Michael Sheen shooting the breeze over Zoom, but Pandemonium is the first scripted non-Zoom lockdown comedy. Or at least the first I’ve heard about. I wonder how many more there will be. On the one hand, what could be more sitcom-friendly than the whole nation being stuck indoors with their families? On the other, there have been 70,000 dead and millions are struggling with money, unemployment, illness and depression, which isn’t especially lolzy,

Pandemonium is a valiant effort at the tightrope act of exploiting the humour of the predicament without making light of it. Created by and starring Cowards’ Tom Basden, it uses two timeframes to relay the desperate attempts of the Jessop family to get away for a holiday.

In January, the Jessops are radiant with hope for the year ahead. Paul (Jim Howick) has just booked a glamorous tour of California for the whole family. Disneyland, Laguna Beach, Yosemite, the works. Paul’s wife, Rachel (Katherine Parkinson) is planning to open a cafe, and their daughter Amy (Freya Parks) is happy with her girlfriend Maya (Mica Ricketts) and looking forward to university. Paul’s mother Sue (Alison Steadman) is due to get a new hip, and Rachel’s brother, Robin (Basden), is engaged to Cherry (Tori Allen-Martin). Things are looking up.

By October, government restrictions have reduced the family to driving to Margate. Sunny optimism has given way to icy gloom. Paul is depressed about not having worked for six months, Rachel is depressed about their sex life and taking out loans in secret. Robin’s smoking again, having been jilted by Cherry. Amy’s depressed about freshers' week in lockdown and things haven’t been going well with Maya. Sue needs a wee.

Most mysterious is the youngest son, Sam (Jack Christou), who’s mostly behind the camera. The programme is presented as his home video, part of his media studies course, shot either documentary style, with a drone, or secretly from far away or with concealed cameras. It's a surprisingly creepy device which makes him privy to information he isn’t meant to know.

Along with the jumping timeframes, this unexpected perspective gives Pandemonium a freshness and an edge even when a gag fails to land (and there are a few duds). Covid hasn’t so much created misery as exposed problems that were already there. The desperate Robin goes down on one knee to ask Paul to be his best man. “If you’d rather not do it, he can just book someone from an agency,” Cherry says, seeing Paul’s reluctance. “I’m loath to, if I’m honest,” Robin replies. “I’d rather my best man was someone I knew.” Steadman is as comfortable as ever playing the big-hearted grandmother. 

By the end of this half-hour one-off, there are still plenty of gaps in how the happy family turned into Margate-bound misery, and I found myself wanting to know more. Presumably, they would like to expand Pandemonium into a full series, depending on how this one is received. They ought to give it a go. There hasn’t been a decent BBC family sitcom for years, and we’ll need something to watch if we’re not allowed on holiday. 

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