The Trouble with Maggie Cole, review: Dawn French channels Vicar of Dibley in this irresistible drama

The actor plays a local gossip who has bitten off more than she can chew in ITV’s excellent and intriguing new series

Sean O'Grady
Wednesday 04 March 2020 16:11 GMT
The Trouble With Maggie Cole trailer

There’s really no trouble for the viewer, with The Trouble with Maggie Cole (ITV). It is a delight to see Dawn French and Julie Hesmondhalgh teamed up, and more than generously supported by a formidable cast including Mark Heap, John Macmillan, Vicki Pepperdine, and Chetna Pandya. The premise of this six-part drama set in a picturesque, close-knit English village is an excellent and irresistibly intriguing one. As posed by writer Mark Brotherhood it is this: what would you do if your disobliging private views about your family, friends, workmates, neighbours, local shopkeeper and doctor were suddenly taken out of their usual confidential forums, and literally broadcast to them and the entire county?

Yes, a bit embarrassing, but what if those catty thoughts comprehensively encompassed deeply hurtful details about adultery, promiscuity, and money?

Such is the fate that befalls the hapless Maggie Cole (French), a jolly “local historian” in the ancient coastal settlement of Thurlbury and “keeper of the keep” as she puts it – which is to say she runs a gift shop in some medieval ruin. She’s married to the local headmaster, is the local gossip and a bit of a local celebrity, or so she likes to think. A bit of a treasure really; the pillar of the community; a bit Vicar of Dibley, you might say.

Then... Maggie receives a random call from a local radio reporter who tells her he wants to know all about the village’s celebrations for its 500th anniversary. They arrange to meet in a pub. Rather early in the day, it must be said, the reporter Jez (Macmillan) plies Maggie with a series of hefty gin and tonics, and records every word she says. Inevitably she can’t help herself from spilling the beans on everyone in the village, never thinking for a moment that Jez would actually use the material. He has, of course, failed to follow the correct protocol of explaining what was for broadcast and what was not.

Over-excited, over-confident and deluded about the success of “the interview”, which is on a near-Prince Andrew scale, Maggie throws a great big barbecue party for everyone she knows and loves. They gather around the radio, with prosecco and sausage rolls in hand, and then... it goes a bit ghastly. The indiscretions are manifold and colourfully expressed.

Her best friend Jill Wheadon (Hesmondhalgh) is going to succeed Maggie’s own beloved husband Peter (Heap) as headteacher, but “let’s just say she’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer”. The village GP (Pandya), the radio tells her and all her patients, just lets her guy go off on “business trips” at the weekend so he can conduct a gay affair; the Polish shopkeeper’s daughter sleeps around; another couple in the village have (supposedly) won the lottery but sneakily not told anyone; the resident famous novelist is a bit of a fraud, and on and on it goes until Maggie’s son literally pulls the plug.

Hesmondhalgh is especially good as Maggie’s betrayed, belittled and verbally brutalised (former) BFF. It reminds me of the scene in Trainspotting when Spud tries to dispose of a soiled bedsheet but instead ends up splattering the contents around his girlfriend’s parents’ living room. Everyone is covered in... brown embarrassment.

And that is that for the first episode, with a trailer at the end that gives clues to what’s to come for the second episode. Maggie and her family will attempt to reverse Maggie’s self-inflicted social ex-communication. In the process, the hint is, Maggie, will also learn a bit more of the truth about her fellow villagers, as opposed to her gossipy guesswork.

I’d hope that she, as well as all of us, find out a little more about the mysterious motives of Jez, who seems to be a bit too calculatingly venal, even for a contemporary British journalist. I suppose the great irony of this skillful takedown of the gossip is that it invites the viewer to pry into the private lives of complete strangers, and entirely fictitious ones at that. Of course, we do that all the time; but at least The Trouble with Maggie Cole makes you reflect a little on such bad habits.

I’m ashamed to say that I do want to know about the GP’s straying husband, the Polish family and the couple who’ve suddenly and mysteriously acquired an expensive classic sports car. What is going on in the doctor’s marriage that we’re not aware of? Maybe Julie isn’t as dim as she seems? Perhaps that young couple have another explanation for driving a 1984 Lotus Esprit (and some of us would say they’d need a damn good reason in any circumstances, as it isn’t the best of classic choices). As you can tell, I’ve got a few ideas of my own about that lot down in Thurlbury. But, I’m not one to gossip you know.

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