Why you should be watching Mum on BritBox
James R | On 20, Feb 2018
A funeral is the starting point for this sitcom from the creator of Him & Her, and it sets the tone for a series that balances the bitter and the sweet with heart-wrenching elegance.
The funeral is for the husband of Cathy (Lesley Manville), marking the start of a year trying to move on with life – a year’s journey that we follow month by month with each episode. It’s a poignant, moving premise that gives the show a painfully tragic core, one that most comedies would shy away from. But Mum doesn’t just embrace it: it makes it side-splittingly hilarious.
Stefan Golaszewski, who gave us the gentle and moving Him & Her, is a veteran of juggling sentiment with something spiky – in the case of his BBC Three classic, a raunchy streak that gave his central couple a compellingly believable edge. Mum, about a middle-aged widow, is notably less saucy, but it makes up for sauce with a heavy dollop of heart.
The funeral is the perfect introduction to that thoughtful approach, as it gives Cathy a chance to contemplate loneliness and loss, but also gives us a chance to meet the rest of the family, as they descend upon the house. There’s her son, Jason (an enjoyably gormless Sam Swainsbury), her walking carpet of a brother, Derek (Ross Boatman), her brother’s snooty other half, Pauline (a delightfully loathsome Dorothy Atkinson), and her loud, deaf parents (Karl Johnson and Marlene Sidaway). And amid all of the dark suits and black hats? A young woman in a bright red dress. That would be Kelly (Lisa McGrillis), the girlfriend of her brother, whose only black dress is too short for a crematorium, and she didn’t to be inappropriate. Oh, and she forgot her pants. Is it ok if she borrows Cathy’s?
It’s a laugh-out-loud indicator of what’s to come, and McGrillis doesn’t hold back on Kelly’s ditziness. “You’d think there’d be people to do that for you,” she observes, when Cathy talks of the difficulty in burying her husband. The dimwitted comments continue without pause, and only get more so, as everyone else opens their mouths. For parents, there’s an unfortunate flipside to hearing your kids grow up, as they can only ever say things that you already know. As the mother of the whole family, Cathy has to deal with that seven times over, and Golaszewski relishes the chance to expose stupidity at every generation of the clan.
Jason finds himself considering moving to Australia, while Cathy’s mum, Maureen, starts announcing all the various groups of people she hasn’t had sex with. Derek, on the other hand, gets quieter and quieter, as Pauline sinks her claws into him and exerts cruel control by decrying everything about her as poor and common. “Is that tea brewed in the cup?” she sneers, as Cathy makes her a cuppa, then laughs at the idea that she keeps her tea in a box labelled ‘tea’. By the time she’s demanding champagne, holidays and texting her ex-husband on Valentine’s Day to taunt him with their dating plans, she’s almost unbearably horrible.
But Mum’s success lies not in the awkward prickliness or giggling at the silliness, but looking past the number of brain cells to the organ pumping inside their chests. Swainsbury’s doting son emerges as an endearingly loyal boyfriend, while McGrillis’ Kelly is heartbreakingly innocent, raised by a mum who laughs and bullies her and never has a nice word to say. Kelly’s unassuming, simple perspective on the world could easily prove an ironic font of wisdom, but Golaszewski isn’t interested in something so clear-cut or conventional: she never hits the heights of philosophical insight, but never falls far short either, managing to remain rounded without being overwritten.
That same care is taken with every character we see on screen, most notably Peter Mullen, who displays rarely seen comedy chops as old family friend Michael. He hangs around in the edge of the frame, bringing flowers, wondering who has made Cathy a Valentine’s Day card (answer: Kelly, of course) and quietly ordering the same Chinese takeaway selection as the woman he’s holding a torch for. Mullen’s wrinkled smile of a face is wonderfully charming, and his unspoken feelings, combined with hungover admissions of drunken disorderliness on several nights before, make for exactly the kind of character that carries Mum through its quick 30-minute instalments: this is a show of complex people interacting, sometimes sadly, sometimes hilariously.
And, at the heart of it all is Lesley Manville. From Goggle Eyes to Holding On, Cranford to Another Year, Manville’s been a national treasure on our screens, right up to the point where she’s Oscar nominated for the prim and proper compassion of her role in Phantom Thread, opposite Daniel Day-Lewis. Here, she’s simply magnificent in a performance of such understated restraint that you could almost believe she isn’t acting at all. Her effortless presence helps the show to pivot seamlessly from sad to funny, from happy to achingly melancholic, often without saying a word – and every time her grin appears, it lights up the whole programme with genuine warmth. Taking us through a year in her life, from getting ready on a weekday morning to arguments on New Year’s Eve, Mum is a portrait of a women getting on with life, an intimate tour of the everyday that turns minute ups and downs into real elation and tears. Sometimes, you’ll laugh. Sometimes, you’ll cry. Mostly, you’ll do them both at the same time. What a quietly profound and beautiful human piece of television.
Mum: Season 1 and 2 is available on BritBox, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.