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

Photo: Getty
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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.