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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No, David Cameron’s speech was not “left wing”

Come on, guys.

There is a strange journalistic phenomenon that occurs when a party leader makes a speech. It is a blend of groupthink, relief, utter certainty, and online backslapping. It happened particularly quickly after David Cameron’s speech to Tory party conference today. A few pundits decided that – because he mentioned, like, diversity and social mobility – this was a centre-left speech. A leftwing speech, even. Or at least a clear grab for the liberal centre ground. And so that’s what everyone now believes. The analysis is decided. The commentary is written. Thank God for that.

Really? It’s quite easy, even as one of those nasty, wicked Tories, to mention that you actually don’t much like racism, and point out that you’d quite like poor children to get jobs, without moving onto Labour's "territory". Which normal person is in favour of discriminating against someone on the basis of race, or blocking opportunity on the basis of class? Of course he’s against that. He’s a politician operating in a liberal democracy. And this isn’t Ukip conference.

Looking at the whole package, it was actually quite a rightwing speech. It was a paean to defence – championing drones, protecting Britain from the evils of the world, and getting all excited about “launching the biggest aircraft carriers in our history”.

It was a festival of flagwaving guff about the British “character”, a celebration of shoehorning our history chronologically onto the curriculum, looking towards a “Greater Britain”, asking for more “national pride”. There was even a Bake Off pun.

He also deployed the illiberal device of inculcating a divide-and-rule fear of the “shadow of extremism – hanging over every single one of us”, informing us that children in UK madrassas are having their “heads filled with poison and their hearts filled with hate”, and saying Britain shouldn’t be “overwhelmed” with refugees, before quickly changing the subject to ousting Assad. How unashamedly centrist, of you, Mr Prime Minister.

Benefit cuts and a reduction of tax credits will mean the Prime Minister’s enthusiasm for “equality of opportunity, as opposed to equality of outcome” will be just that – with the outcome pretty bleak for those who end up losing any opportunity that comes with state support. And his excitement about diversity in his cabinet rings a little hollow the day following a tubthumping anti-immigration speech from his Home Secretary.

If this year's Tory conference wins the party votes, it’ll be because of its conservative commitment – not lefty love bombing.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.