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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Would you jump off a cliff if someone told you to? One time, I did

I was walking across the bridge in Matlock park, which is about 12 feet high, with a large group of other kids from my year, in the pouring rain.

Ever heard the phrase, “Would you jump off a cliff if they told you to?” It was the perpetual motif of my young teenage years: my daily escapades, all of which sprang from a need to impress a peer, were distressing and disgusting my parents.

At 13, this tomboyish streak developed further. I wrote urgent, angry poems containing lines like: “Who has desire for something higher than jumping for joy and smashing a light?” I wanted to push everything to its limits, to burst up through the ceiling of the small town I lived in and land in America, or London, or at least Derby. This was coupled with a potent and thumping appetite for attention.

At the height of these feelings, I was walking across the bridge in Matlock park, which is about 12 feet high, with a large group of other kids from my year, in the pouring rain. One of the cool girls started saying that her cousin had jumped off the bridge into the river and had just swum away – and that one of us should do it.

Then someone said that I should do it, because I always did that stuff. More people started saying I should. The group drew to a halt. Someone offered me a pound, which was the clincher. “I’m going to jump!” I yelled, and clambered on to the railing.

There wasn’t a complete hush, which annoyed me. I looked down. It was raining very hard and I couldn’t see the bottom of the riverbed. “It looks really deep because of the rain,” someone said. I told myself it would just be like jumping into a swimming pool. It would be over in a few minutes, and then everyone would know I’d done it. No one could ever take it away from me. Also, somebody would probably buy me some Embassy Filter, and maybe a Chomp.

So, surprising even myself, I jumped.

I was about three seconds in the air. I kept my eyes wide open, and saw the blur of trees, the white sky and my dyed red hair. I landed with my left foot at a 90-degree angle to my left ankle, and all I could see was red. “I’ve gone blind!” I thought, then realised it was my hair, which was plastered on to my eyes with rain.

When I pushed it out of the way and looked around, there was no one to be seen. They must have started running as I jumped. Then I heard a voice from the riverbank – a girl called Erin Condron, who I didn’t know very well. She pushed me home on someone’s skateboard, because my ankle was broken.

When we got to my house, I waited for Mum to say, “Would you jump off another cliff if they told you to?” but she was ashen. I had to lie that Dave McDonald’s brother had pushed me in the duck pond. And that’s when my ankle started to throb. I never got the pound, but I will always be grateful to Erin Condron. 

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser