We are family: the cast of Outnumbered at the National Television Awards in 2012. Photo: Getty Images
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For half an hour a week, I turn on the TV and watch the future I won’t have

Watching BBC1's Outnumbered is less painful now but it's still bitter-sweet.

There’s a new series of Outnumbered on the BBC. For those who don’t know, this is a sharply written sitcom – with, I believe, a little wriggle room for improvisation from all the characters – about a very average family (we’re squarely in the middle of the middle class here), starring Hugh Dennis, the voice of exasperated, left-leaning Middle England, as the paterfamilias of a family with three children in it.

The show first aired around the time I got told I was surplus to requirements as a permanent fixture in the family home, though it was decided that I was useful for picking up the youngest from school, fixing the bits of the car that weren’t beyond my capacity to fix, and supplying an enormous sum of money every month for the sake of the children’s well-being. So the TV show and I peeled away from each other, so to speak, at the very instance of its first broadcast.

It was, for a time, too painful to watch. How Hugh Dennis’s character, a harassed teacher at a comprehensive, managed to put up with his incredibly annoying, passive-aggressive wife (superbly played by Claire Skinner) escaped me; how he allowed his children – also all superbly played – to get like that was a bit less of a mystery; and how they managed to afford their home was, and remains, a mystery, like that of the Giant Rat of Sumatra, for which the world is obviously not yet prepared. But the chief pain resided in the mise-en-scène: here was a family, and a couple, that had managed to stay together. They could do it; why couldn’t we? It wasn’t like I’d wanted to go.

This is always going to be at the back of my mind when I watch it, but the pain has receded somewhat. Time, or habit, or a combination of both, is a great analgesic, and I have been given enough of it to understand that Hugh Dennis and Claire Skinner are not in real life married to each other, and so have no real reason not to wish the other one irrevocably absent.

But still. It’s in the accuracy of its portrayal of family life that it has been deservedly praised, and I watch it in the way that you might watch a parallel universe unfolding in front of you. This, I think, is what my future, or my present – because the Dennis and Skinner characters are pretty much the same ages as myself and the Estranged Wife, and their children the same ages as ours – would be like, had I behaved considerably better, and my wife shown considerably more patience.

I have to say, I am beginning to wonder about the desirability of the whole domestic thing. True, Dennis plays someone who has had, at some point before the first series began, his balls chopped off, but teaching can do that to people as much as marriage. Yet he suffers privations that during the past six and a half years have been strange to me. (The whole “having a job” thing has been strange to me since about 1990.) Only this could account for a real-life marriage in which there are no seething, poisonous and crackling silences, or weeping arguments, or hissed accusations along the lines of “Another one of your lies”, and so on. (How loudly can you hiss? Try it some time.)

I’m not wild with the way things are at the moment, though. In the Hovel, things are a little too lonely. This is not a matter of the personnel around the place: the replacement lodger that has been called for would only bring my loneliness into sharper relief. Then again, things at home would be a little too crowded, even with the eldest daughter now away from home until she packs up her things for university. One wants things a little bit more like this over there, and a little bit more like there over here.

Still, one craves contact. An old friend whom I’ve not seen in years gets in touch on Facebook and asks to see pictures of the children. Women like seeing pictures of children even when they’re not their own, it’s a well-known fact. I have no recent ones and ask the EW for some, and the kids’ coolness (every picture in which they’re all together at once looks like a publicity photo for a really good band) makes me miss them all the more. Then again, maybe if I saw them every day I wouldn’t notice that kind of thing and would just see them as three Enemies of Promise who have outgrown their prams. All the same, it’s nice that they’re considerably better-behaved and even more considerably less anxious-making than the kids in Outnumbered. Now should Claire kick Hugh out?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.