Last Night’s TV Review: Mum

The humble BAFTA award-winning comedy returns for a well deserved second series on BBC2.

To describe Mum as a gentle comedy probably undersells it, but seems apt for a show that does exactly the same to itself. With title character Cathy (Lesley Manville) having already dealt with the mayhem of her somewhat idiotic family while grieving for her recently passed husband, this second outing starts with another big, albeit less traumatic, milestone in her life – her 60th birthday.

If writer Stefan Golaszewski’s first hit Him & Her depicted the nuances of beginning a life together, Mum looks from the other side as an ageing parent lovingly trapped as the focal point of those around her. Both, of course, share Golaszewski’s wonderful ability to subtly but sharply script observational comedy so accurately; not just in such a seemingly laissez faire manner, but staged in real-time in the confinement of a single home.

As his success has shown, it’s a winning combination, and in Mum gives room for a superb cast of actors to show their ability. It goes without saying that Lesley Manville steals the show, drawing on years of experience with Mike Leigh to provide real depth to an all too mundane suburban setting. Peter Mullan is equally beautifully understated as Cathy’s will-they-won’t-they love interest Michael, and the only other sensible person amongst the clan.

That’s not to say there aren’t laugh-out-loud moments, largely from son Jason (Sam Swainsbury) and daughter-in-law Kelly (Lisa McGrillis), still living at home and desperately in need of Cathy’s help to survive in life. “I love the Happy Birthday song don’t you?”, says Kelly at one point. Quite how Cathy copes is anyone’s guess, and indeed the heart of this show.

It’s a tribute to Golaszewski’s writing (and in this second series direction too, replacing Richard Laxton with whom he worked previously) that the fine line between parody and stupidity is never crossed, with a genuine love and vulnerability in the dialogue rather than crass stupidity. However wince-inducing the situation – and some scenes are The Office level cringe-making – as a viewer you always end up rooting for the characters rather than laughing at them.

It’s something that largely comes from the jokes being allowed to stand and breathe, unlike some current popular BBC sitcoms. There’s no canned or audience laughter, and crucially no forced rhythm or deliberate punchlines. Often gags are more poignant than rip-roaring, sometimes merely suggested rather than telegraphed. Whether it be a stray glance, a slightly altered facial expression or even just a movement of the camera, every detail and beat of the comedy is so well planned that as a viewer you are given the privilege to laugh at the moments in between the farce.

The key is the reduction of the ‘situation’ in the sitcom. As with Him & Her, narratives are little more than the precursor or aftermath of an offscreen event. This first episode merely portrays the family preparing to leave the house to celebrate Cathy’s 60th birthday with a carvery.

But it’s not that this slow pace detracts from the laugher. There’s widow Cathy’s uptight in-laws Reg and Maureen (Karl Johnson and Marlene Sidaway) ranting with everyone about the best way to drive to the venue, everyone commenting – progressively more insultingly – about Michael’s new and unironed shirt, and the best line of this opening episode, inevitably from Kelly to Cathy, “So what age is it when you get the old lady smell?”.

There’s also the stooge of the piece. Much like Him & Her’s wonderfully obnoxious Laura, Golaszewski pulls off the same trick with another Mike Leigh cohort Dorothy Atkinson delighting as the unlikeable Pauline, second wife of Cathy’s brother Derek (Ross Boatman). Desperate, but always failing, to be in with a better well-off crowd, it makes her the perfect antithesis to Cathy’s lazier but more charming ways.

The only worry is that with a third series already commissioned months ago, you wonder if there’s enough legs in the potential narrative development. However, with Kelly seemingly unknowingly pregnant (the audience once again allowed to subtly be way ahead of the characters) it should at least give this series something to hang on. There’s only so many times the main protagonists can fail to get together – but as with Mike Leigh’s work and the BBCs best comedy in years Detectorists, a little can indeed go a long way.

It takes great skill for any programme, let alone a comedy, to have you wincing and worrying throughout, but leave you feeling utterly joyous at the end. By the time a mix-up with Michael’s birthday presents for Cathy resolves itself and the familiar Lulu & The Lampshades ‘Cups (You’re Gonna Miss Me)’ theme tune kicks in, you realise there’s few places better than being back at home with Mum.


Catch-up with Mum on the BBC iPlayer, including the entire first series until Thursday 8 March 2018.