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Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Mum: Why great British comedy can make us laugh and cry

It probably sounds really daft, but my favourite comedies are the ones that make me cry. Whilst the majority of us watch comedy to laugh it's the sign of a real comedy if you can get so attached to those on screen that you can cry at them or with them too.

The first example of this for me came in an episode of 1989 during an episode of Only Fools and Horses. You may remember it yourself. It's Rodney's wedding day and as the Nag Head's starts to clear and the last guests say their goodbye it dawns on Del that the little brother he's been a father figure to is moving out and leaving him. The pair share a knowing glance across the room both either too macho or too upset to acknowledge the moment properly. As Rodney and his new bride are whisked away Del is left in an empty function room contemplating life without his brother by his side. It's a scene free of dialogue, Simply Red's Holding Back the Years plays in the background and Del stands lost in this vast room not quite ready to face going home. I was very young when I saw this for the first time. I understood immediately the subtext and the emotion behind it. It taught me quite early on that comedy doesn't always have to make you laugh it can make you feel too.

The second instance was, funnily enough, another moment from Only Fools and Horses. This time in the second episode of 1996's final trilogy. The brothers are in the lift at Nelson Mandella House shortly after Cassandra's miscarriage. Del believes Rodney hasn't properly dealt with the loss and when the lift judders to a sudden stop the pair discuss the tragic event and Rodney is forced to confront the true and painful emotion he's been hiding. This scene still brings a lump to my throat whenever I think of the scene. Moments before I'd been laughing my head off and then all of a sudden, like in life something happens and you feel overcome with sadness. It's something 'Fools' writer John Sullivan had a knack for. It wasn't something he overused and is probably the reason the series is so beloved to this day. When you cry with someone you feel more emotionally connected to them.

The next time this happened to me was in the final episode of series two of The Office. The show had began as an expertly observed mockumentary but by the end of the second series, its central buffoon David Brent began to show his human side and the scene where a desperate Brent pleads for his job back sticks with me today as one of the most moving moments in British comedy. You finally saw that this man, who up until this point had shown himself to be an utter embarrassment was actually desperate to be liked and for the approval of those around him. By the end of that second series, Brent is a broken man with all his layers laid bare for the audience to sympathise with.  It's one of the scenes I'll always remember and showed that Ricky Gervais was capable of really emotional performances.

Next, the 2006 special of The Royle Family entitled 'The Queen of Sheba'. The Royles had been away six years when this new special was announced. It came almost out of the blue. As a massive fan of the series I was overjoyed but perhaps not emotionally prepared for Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash had cooked up for me. It began innocently enough like any great episode of the show but slowly morphed into an incredibly moving piece of television. The episode, for those unlucky enough never to see it, focused on the death of Liz Smith's beloved 'nanna'. There's an incredible scene before her death where Barbara (the brilliant Sue Johnston) combs her mum's wayward grey hair. They share some very funny lines and then very softly, Nanna thanks her daughter for brushing her hair and for helping and for not making her feel like a burden. The Royle Family was never a series that shied away from tender moments but this felt really special. You can see Barbara is visibly moved by her elderly mother's words and is trying to hold it together and just as she's about to break the pair start to sing Que Sera Sera. The moments that follow are heartbreaking but that final little exchange between a mother and daughter is so beautiful it never fails to bring a tear to my eye.

I lost a close family member this year. It's affected far more than I could ever have predicted and I've found myself gravitating to comedies more since. I've loved BBC Two's comedy 'Mum' from the very start. Some people don't understand my affection for it and I can appreciate that the majority of its small ensemble is made up of quite irritating people you'd never want to be sat be next to on a plane or trapped in a lift with, but like The Royle Family, it has family at its core. Lesley Manville's widow Cathy and Peter Mullan's Michael ground the show and it's their often excruciating exchanges that make this show something really special. Michael is in love with Cathy. It's never explicitly said, but Cathy and the audience are well aware of Michael's feelings.

In the most recent episode Michael, who always a little subdued around Cathy comes to pick up gormless pair Jason and Kelly to take them to the airport. From the moment he's on screen it's clear there's something different going on. It later transpires that his Mum, who despite never appearing has been a constant presence throughout has died. Michael is visibly shaken and the pair tries to conceal their upset from the madness going around them. When Michael does finally get Cathy alone he finally shares his feelings. With tears in his eyes and a break in his gravelly voice, he talks about how life is too short and how people never say the things they should say. It's an incredibly moving scene that could've plucked out of an award-winning drama, but instead its part of this brilliantly observed comedy that I adore.  Writer Stefan Golaszewski knows these characters so well and the scene feels incredibly intimate and emotional. Fearing that he's just talking out of grief, Cathy repeats, "don't say this now" as Michael continues to pour his heart out. I was truly balling.

Don't get me wrong I don't go searching for tears within comedy but it's a skill that certain writer posses and those are the comedies that have a special place in my heart. Mum has always been a show that has moved me but that episode last night has propelled it into a new position. We do drama and comedy brilliantly in Britain, that's part of the reason I'm such a telly obsessive, but perhaps what we do best of all is combining the two so expertly reminding you that comedy and drama don't have to be separated.

Mum Continues Tuesday at 10.00pm on BBC Two


admindroid said...

Thanks for pointing me in the direction of Mum and indeed the other previous examples of British comic tragedy. It takes me back to the time when Steptoe and son would suddenly turn the tables on its audience and make us cry at Harold's forlorn prediciment - "It's all for you; you've got me. Who will I have?" Or words to that effect.

admindroid said...

Same with 2 corrections.

Thanks for pointing me in the direction of Mum and indeed the other previous examples of British tragi-comedy. It takes me back to the time when Steptoe and Son would suddenly turn the tables on its audience and make us cry at Harold's forlorn prediciment - "It's alright for you; you've got me. Who will I have?" Or words to that effect.

kevin said...

Yes Mum is a fantastic series and in the latest episode Peter Mullan (Michael) delivered a performance that was quite superb. It was quiet and understated with the silences leaving time for the audience to feel his pain. It was very moving and shows what a fine actor can do with a quality script. He finally broke cover and admitted his love for Cathy. Her rejection of his advance left him utterly dejected. As you say the best comedies are able to have moments of utter sadness as well as laughs. The Detectorists is another BBC series that has done that this year. When people say that TV comedies are not as good as they were I point then towards these two series. In my jusgement they are as good as any I have ever seen.

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