Sunday 22 September 2019

Motherland review: Sharon Horgan and Graham Linehan make sitcom great again - riotous

5 stars

Motherland, BBC
Motherland, BBC

Pat Stacey




Here’s a little memory game you can play. How many truly great BBC sitcoms can you name that were made within say, the last six or seven years? The question needs a little qualifying, though.

By “truly great”, I mean great enough to stand the test of time. Great enough to be ranked up there with stone-cold BBC classics from the past, like Fawlty Towers, Blackadder, Steptoe and Son, Porridge, Only Fools and Horses, and all the others which feature prominently whenever someone compiles a list of the best British sitcoms of all time.

(If your answer includes Mrs Brown’s Boys, by the way, you’re out. Disqualified. We’ll put up with none of that crap here).

Fleabag and The Thick of It, while completely different in style, are two that qualify as genuinely great BBC sitcoms — although you have to allow for the fact that Armando Iannucci’s brilliant political satire actually began in 2005 and went off air as long ago as 2012.

Beyond those, it’s difficult to find enough to fill the fingers of one hand. Outnumbered certainly deserves a mention for the wonderful improvised performances of the young cast members, who are scarily true to life.

W1A — the Beeb’s satirical swipe at its own in-house bureaucracy — is funny, but very much of the moment. The acid test of a great sitcom is whether you’d watch an episode twice. In this case, I’m not sure I would.

Ben Elton’s Shakespeare comedy Upstart Crow, starring David Mitchell as the Bard, is easily the best thing he’s has written in years. At the same time, it’s no Blackadder.

Frankly, it becomes a struggle after that. But then, just when you’ve practically given up hope of the BBC ever again making a true comedy classic, along comes the wonderful Motherland, which has been granted a full series after last year’s hilarious pilot.

It was clear from that one-off episode, shown as one of a batch of six try-outs to mark the BBC’s celebration of 60 years of sitcoms, that it wouldn’t remain a one-off for long.

The script — written by Sharon Horgan, Graham Linehan (how’s that for a dream team-up?), Helen Linehan and Holly Walsh — is a joy, delivering one zinger after another, and the cast, led by the wonderful Anna Maxwell-Martin and Diane Morgan (of Philomena Cunk fame), are pure perfection.

Most great sitcoms are founded on a simple premise, and Motherland’s couldn’t be simpler: the sheer bloody hell of being a working mother in the modern world.

For permanently harried mother-of-two Julia (Maxwell-Martin), chaos, catastrophe and absolute humiliation are rarely more than a heartbeat away in any given situation.

But the situation in Tuesday night’s opening instalment was one liable to drive any parent to the very edge of a nervous collapse: organising a kid’s birthday party.

Luckily, Julia had her best pal, chilled-out single mother Liz (Morgan), who couldn’t give a toss what anyone thinks of her, to lighten the load and offer some practical advice.

“You invite 30 kids, you get 30 invites back,” she says. “That’s free childcare.”

Unfortunately, Julia’s stress levels increased thirtyfold with the arrival of the immaculate Amanda (Lucy Punch), Queen Bee of the bitchy, clannish alpha-mums. Rather than just drop off their brats, they decided to barge in to snoop around and have a good snigger at Julia’s chaotic house.

Everything that can go wrong goes wrong. Julia’s Minions cake looks like it’s been caught in a nuclear explosion. The birthday girl, her daughter Ivy, is too sick to come down to her own party. The children’s entertainer she’s hired, Animal Man, turns out to be a racist with a crap act that involves only cats.

Julia’s male friend, the less-than-alpha Kevin (Paul Ready), tries to entertain the kids by playing tunes on a flute he’s carved from a carrot.

The best comedy takes reality and stretches it just enough to be funny but still believable. Every mother (and for that matter, father) will find plenty to relate to in Motherland. They’ll find even more to laugh their heads off at. Riotous.

Motherland, BBC2 NI on Tuesdays at 11.15pm (10pm other BBC regions)

'I had to go up to the secretary at my daughter's school and do an advance apology' - Sharon Horgan on new series Motherland 


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