Sometimes — really not often but sometimes — a programme that’s good and honest and true slips under the wire of the BBC’s jealously guarded PC agenda and makes a home run. The latest to do so is a deadpan comedy series called This Country (BBC3).
It’s so deadpan that it’s easy to see why an earlier pilot episode for ITV crashed and burned. If you were channel-hopping and lingered on it for five minutes, you might easily mistake it for an earnest, worthy, achingly tedious fly-on-the-wall documentary series about the poverty and despair of left-behind rural England. This impression is enhanced by screeds that occasionally appear on screen giving you, say, statistics illustrative of the funding crisis in healthcare outside the big cities.
But it is, in fact, a mockumentary. A rustic variant, if you will, on Ricky Gervais’s The Office. (Another of those rare BBC home runs. And, incidentally, do you know how long ago that was? 2001 it started. In fact, it predates 9/11.)
It was written by brother and sister Charlie Cooper and Daisy May. He was an Exeter University dropout; she was an unemployed RADA graduate. In desperation, with almost no writing experience, they decided to write a series based on their personal experience of the unutterable boredom of living in a Cotswold village.
They also play the two main characters, cousins Kerry and Kurtan Mucklowe. Kerry is big-boned, rapacious and aggressive but underneath she is desperate for the affection she doesn’t get from her wastrel father and screeching mum (whom we only ever hear, off camera, cawing indecipherable yells that are interpreted for us via subtitle); Kurtan is a semi-feral hoodie waster who dreams of escape, but can’t quite get his act together so spends his time drinking or coarse-fishing instead.
The plots are about rural mundanity. In one recent episode, Kerry gets ever-so-slightly injured in a football match refereed by the vicar. The rest concerns her long, long wait to be treated in the local hospital. If this were a more conventional sitcom, there’d be some kind of moral arc, or at least comedic payback for the earlier set-up. Kerry would be punished in some funny way for her hypochondria. Here, though, all that happens is that she waits for a long time, and eventually gets treated by friendly hospital staff who don’t judge her at all for being a drama queen. They send her off, with a recommendation that she keeps her leg up and gets some rest. And that’s it.
‘It’s difficult to sustain a programme where the main theme is boredom,’ Charlie Cooper said in a Radio Times interview. But that is what is so courageous and brilliant about This Country: not unlike Gervais’s early work, it really doesn’t mind if you don’t get the joke. This is niche, almost cultish humour, which makes those few who do get it feel part of an exclusive club.
What make it are the tiny, beautifully observed details. They take ages getting all the cultural references exactly right — Warhammer, Cadbury’s Fuse bar, Tony from Hollyoaks. But I think my favourite one so far is when Kerry and Kurtan discover that the ludicrously nice vicar, whose generosity they exploit horribly, used to be in a 1980s Christian band called The Nice Guys. At the end of the episode the vicar digs out an old cassette and plays one of their hits. And it’s perfect — the 1980s synth tinniness, the slightly Pet Shop Boys middle eight, the cheesy flute solo, which the vicar counts in with relish. Catchy too. The best use of music in a comedy, I’d say, since the ‘My Lovely Horse’ Eurovision entry (written by Neil Hannon) in Father Ted.
Underneath it all there beats an emotional heart, as when for example we learn that the nice vicar is suffering the private tragedy of a drugs- and booze-addicted son. But it doesn’t lay it on with a trowel, as so many TV shows and movies and books seem to feel compelled to do these days — as if they are anxious that you might otherwise miss the important underlying social message.
If there’s a lesson here, it’s trust your talent and just let them get on with it. And it’s hardly a new one. I remember Jimmy Perry telling me, in the course of a long interview, how incredibly hard it was to get one of his sitcom ideas through the BBC system. Too sensitive a subject. Too recent historically. Too many people might take offence. The series, of course, was Dad’s Army.