Every so often a sitcom lands on our screens whose ‘sit’ is so unpromising that you wonder where the ‘com’ is going to come from. The Royle Family was like that – what’s so funny about a bunch of people sitting around watching television? But it didn’t take long for it become established as one of the nation’s favourite comedies.
Now Mum is back for a second series, despite, on the face of it, being about nothing more than the gentle coming and goings of the recently widowed Cathy and her family – yet it is laugh-out-loud funny. (What’s more it is scripted by a man, Stefan Golaszewski, who is clearly one of the good guys.)
To be sure, it trades in stereotypes. Cathy’s son, Jason, and his girlfriend, Kelly (both resident in Cathy’s house), are the most egregious examples of thoughtless youth, for whom anyone over the age of 30 has very little reality. In the first series we see Kelly breaking a necklace of sentimental value that Cathy has lent her, and being artlessly rude to her, though she professes to love her. But in the middle of braying at the girl’s ignorance and boorishness, we receive a blow to the heart when Kelly’s own abrasive and sneering mother turns up and demonstrates precisely why Kelly has turned out as she has. And yet … by the end of the first series a dawning awareness of social obligation sees Kelly actually stooping to pick up litter from the front path. In the generation above, it’s little better: Cathy’s in-laws bring a bracingly foul-mouthed approach to their grumbling dotage.
The still centre of all this is Mum – Cathy herself. It’s impossible to imagine her being played by anyone other than the great Lesley Manville (OBE – but surely it’s time she was given a damehood).
It’s as if Cathy had quite spontaneously absorbed the lesson of Eleanor Roosevelt and a thousand self-help books since: ‘No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.’ Her serenity may mask a private grief (though we are left unclear about how much of a loss her bereavement really is), but her sister-in-law’s put-downs, her son’s crassness – it all flows over her. She doesn’t aspire to have a pristine home, to be a Cordon Bleu cook, or a fashion plate, so how could any criticism along these lines bother her?
The warmth and calm of Manville’s character are in striking contrast to the brittle professionalism of her roles in Holding On and, most recently, in The Phantom Thread, and to the febrile desperation of Mary in Another Year.
In more casting against type, her love interest is someone renowned for his vicious, hard-man roles: Peter Mullan. Here he is Michael, the tender and tentative suitor. Their mutual attraction is palpable, yet their progress towards any sort of relationship is achingly slow, perpetually blown off course by the crushingly obtuse perceptions of others. Kelly muses to Cathy’s face that she is far too old to be in line for love again, and when her son picks up a rumour that Michael is sweet on her, he laughingly observes to Cathy that such a notion is completely ludicrous. Why is it so excruciatingly enjoyable to watch Cathy and Michael, willing them on, yet despairing at how easily these two restrained and reticent people can be stymied by the insensivity of others?
Add to this the Lulu and the Lampshades’ brilliant ‘Cups’ song as the music that plays over the credits, and there is no more delicious sense of anticipation to be had than when hitting the sofa for your next fix of Mum. And – hooray! – the third series has already been commissioned. If you haven’t seen it, now’s the time to binge on series 1 on catch-up and start following series 2.