Writer Paul Abbott is certainly versatile. From gritty northern factory drama Clocking Off he went south for State Of Play, last year’s glossy thriller about power and politics. Now he’s back in Manchester, for a different kind of drama again, a darkly comic piece about a large dysfunctional family living on a run-down estate.
Shameless could have been just a routine we’re-all-scallies piece, and for the first couple of minutes looked like it might be, as debauched single dad Frank Gallagher (David Threlfall) introduced his brood (including toddler Liam, but with no sign of a Noel). But then it took some brilliant turns, as Frank became a minor character (in fact comatose most of the time) and eldest daughter/surrogate mum Fiona (Anne-Marie Duff) stepped into the limelight. Abbott then infiltrated the family with Steve (James McAvoy, the editor’s son in State Of Play), an upmarket car thief who took a shine to Fiona and set about wooing her. Suddenly we had a nicely balanced mixture of romcom and in-yer-face street drama, and it never looked back from there.
The much-trailered shock elements were mainly based on sex, particularly son Lip getting blowjobs in return for helping classmate Karen with her homework, and getting her to try the same on his younger brother Ian to see if he was gay. He was, and Lip later caught him at it with shop owner Kash (former Corrie star Chris Bisson), whose white, devout-convert Muslim fiancée thought he should be spending more time at the Mosque. Plenty of tabloid shocker material there then, but none of it, in fact, seemed particularly shocking, partly because it was all so good-natured, and partly because, by then, we’d already been drawn into the Gallaghers’ world, and saw it, as they did, as just part of life.
Shameless is partly autobiographical (Abbott grew up in a large, motherless family), and its overriding feeling is of affection, between the family members (even for their highly dysfunctional dad), and for family life – warts, blowjobs and all. It takes a very good writer and actors to make something like that grip the attention, but they managed it. Certainly the best thing on TV so far this year, and likely to be up there among the best at the end of the year, too.
David Threlfall as Frank Gallagher,42, a self-pitying, selfish, charmless, unemployed, alcoholic, bullying father of Fiona, Lip, Ian, Debbie, Carl and Liam
Anne-Marie Duff as Fiona, the warm-hearted, sensible 21-year-old who has looked after her siblings and her father since Frank’s wife walked out years ago
Jody Latham as Lip (Philip), a good-looking, street-wise, cheeky but caring 16-year-old who is keen to lose his virginity
Gerard Kearns as actively gay but introverted 15-year-old Ian, who works at the local convenience store
Rebecca Ryan as Debbie, nine, who has a spooky interest in cleanliness, tidiness and babies, and is the most loving towards her father
Luke/Elliot Tittensor as breast-obsessed Carl, 11
Joseph Furnace as Liam, a three-year-old terror
James McAvoy as Steve, 23, the middle-class Londoner who steals cars for a living and becomes Fiona’s boyfriend
Maxine Peake as feisty next-door neighbour Veronica Fisher
Dean Lennox Kelly as Veronica’s barman boyfriend Kev Ball
Maggie O’Neill as Frank’s Valium-fuelled, dirt-hating, agoraphobic lover Sheila Jackson
Steve Pemberton as Sheila’s Bible-bashing husband Eddie Jackson
Rebecca Atkinson as Sheila and Eddie’s promiscuous daughter Karen Jackson
Chris Bisson as Ian’s Muslim, married secret lover Kash, 35, who runs the local shop
Anthony Flanagan as Tony, the young copper who lost his virginity – and heart – to Fiona
Kelli Hollis as Yvonne
Marjorie Yates as Carol
Annabelle Apsion as Monica
Dystin Johnson as Norma
1 – The last stolen car torching of the summer takes place on the Chatsworth Estate. Lip gets closer to losing his virginity when in return for helping the gorgeous Karen Jackson with her homework. Ian’s gay porn stash is uncovered by Lip who discovers his brother his having sex with Kash and tries to see if he really is gay by getting Karen to give him a blow job under the dining table – an act that is spotted by her straightlaced father Eddie. Fiona falls for the well-mannered, well-dressed Steve, who comes to her rescue at a club and soon gets his feet under the table.
2 – Frank goes missing even though it’s Friday/Giro day, but he turns up in Calais, without a clue about how he got there – although Fiona discovers new boyfriend Steve had something to do with it. Neighbours Veronica and Kev fetch Frank (and loads of booze) home but he walks out again, ending up living with S&M sex-mad Sheila after hearing from her husband that he’s left her.
3 – Barman Kev is inundated with drunk, lairy women – the usual routine for a Friday night at the Jockey – but he tells his admirers he’s getting married – even though he’s yet to tell girlfriend Veronica. When she agrees to go through with it, Kevn has to tell her he’s already married. They decide to have a fake ceremony in order to inherit £5,000 but the day is ruined by Veronica’s pyromaniac, Tourette’s syndrome-suffering brother Marty (Jack Deam). Meanwhile, gay Ian is in trouble with the hardnut brothers of Mandy Maguire (Samantha Siddall) when he rejects her advances and she pretends he pounced on her.
4 – A child goes missing from a children’s party on the Chatsworth estate, and Frank whips the residents into a frenzied lynch mob lashing out at anyone who looks a bit different, even the ice-cream man. But then Fiona discovers the girl has been taken by her troubled sister Debbie and they need to return the child without any fuss to avoid trouble. Meanwhile, Frank is enjoying life at his new home with Sheila, but finds it hard to cope when teenage daughter Karen (Rebecca Atkinson) tries to seduce him.
5 – Karen plans to seduce Frank on their driving lesson. The Gallagher kids may have to go into care and Lip may miss out on getting into the sixth form because Frank doesn’t want to attend the school’s parents’ evening on their behalf. Steve agrees to stand in – and then catches Frank and Karen shagging in the school toilets. When Lip finds out, he takes on his father in results a bloody fight. Kash’s wife Yvonne (Kelli Hollis) witnesses her husband and and his underage lover Ian together on the shop’s security camera and they are terrified she’ll tell the whole of the Chatsworth Estate. Features Corin Redgrave as a bitter teacher.
6 – Frank hatches a plan to get his hands on the maintenance payment from ex-wife Monica (Annabelle Apsion), even though he’s no longer looking after the kids. But the plot is exposed when the bills pile up and scary bailiffs pile in. Monica returns, bringing her big black lesbian trucker lover Norma (Dystin Johnson) with her. Meanwhile, Tony has a proposal for Fiona, and Frank turns transvestite to avoid a beating from the bailiffs.
7 – Things are going badly for Frank, with hassle from the housing office, bailiffs on the doorstep and a total lack of funds. So he goes along with the suggestion of his ex-wife’s lover Norma and stages his own death. But after his wake at The Jockey, he realises the flaw in his plan. Sheila overcomes her agoraphobia and announces she’s pregnant. Jealous PC Tony nicks Steve for stealing cars, but then succumbs to bribery. Steve then buys the house next door for himself and Fiona – and promptly burns it down to claim insurance money.