Embarrassingly, I seem to remember being unimpressed by Paul Abbott's textile-factory drama Clocking Off when it started last year. The opening episode about an amnesiac lorry driver running two families seemed unlikely in a cliched sort of way, despite John Simm's impressive central performance, and appeared to fight the studied realism of the setting. Given that the series went on to win audiences of nine million and a brace of Royal Television Society awards, I was obviously wrong.
Having seen the first two episodes of the second season (Mondays, 9pm, BBC1), I still think it is over-praised. Scenes are cut short before they can fully develop. There is repetition - lots of driving sequences accompanied by jokey, country and western-style music. Ashley Pearce's direction largely has an unearned jauntiness to it, as if so desperate not to take us toward a Ken Loach movie that we end up in Sunny Delight Land. But looking for what's right with it, rather than what's wrong with it, I am beginning to see the point of Clocking Off, and maybe even the light.
Abbott's main achievement is to have wangled the overdue return of the single play to television. Clocking Off is notionally a serial; however, each 50-minute episode is discrete unto itself and, although characters recur, their presence is to provide context not subplot, until the day when they themselves are propelled into the spotlight and a story is woven around them. That both Simm and the highly rewarded Sarah Lancashire, who played the machinist Yvonne, have left therefore presents no great problem. Viewers were not following their stories; we enjoyed their story, singular, and assumed they had only one. The clutter, noise and scale of the Mackintosh Textiles factory is a peculiarly sympathetic setting for this picking-up and dropping of characters. The lives of our colleagues are, Abbott's structure suggests, a mystery to most of us.
The first episode of the new series dealt with the hidden life of a worker who has moved in across the road from a colleague. Using his binoculars, Kev becomes convinced that Brian views child pornography on the internet. His suspicions are eventually proved to have foundation - but not before we have become aware of the two men's similarities. In fact, Brian is both less violent and more socially adept than Kev, whose own sexual morality is far from spotless. It was ambitious storytelling that demanded careful attention. Indeed, in the early parts, this viewer could have done with Kev (Jack Deam) and Brian (Paul Oldham) looking a bit less alike (although that blurring may have been a deliberate comment, too).
I actually preferred the second concoction, by one of Abbott's sous-chefs, Jan McVerry. The dog that had her day this time was Bev, a blousy 38-year-old divorcee who gets her claws into Mal, a widowed machine-repairer (Paul Copley) bringing up two teenage sons rather well, and in comparative affluence. The script played with our prejudices. It was narrow-minded to judge Bev on her taste in interior decor. Those naff miniature teapots, for example, were actually gifts from her grown-up son who sent them from wherever the army stationed him ("Cyprus, Belize, Blackpool . . ." - Blackpool?). Mal deserved a little happiness in his life. And was it not the first rule of romance that lovers should pay no attention to what others think?
The flaw in all this was that Bev really was awful: a lewd, materialist liar (her son was in Strangeways not Kosovo) who faked a pregnancy and then a miscarriage to get her man. It was transgressive fun to watch a programme dare suggest that there was a relationship between moral slackness and the kind of sensibility my mother would have called "common". But we condemned Bev not because of the china cats she brought to the mantelpiece, the fact that she replaced Mal's Ikea lights with tasselled standard lamps or the way she screamed during sex and screamed with laughter about it afterwards to mates ("I woke up walking like John Wayne, so it must have ended up all right"). Or not just because of all that. Her coarseness also meant that she did not mind hurting Mal's sons by betraying a confidence about Mal's sex life with their dead mother. Lindsey Coulson - previously Bianca's mother in EastEnders - played a blinder as Bev. Her drunken scene in which she invited Mal's Rotary Club friends back to the house, and they came, saw and sneered, was a superb account of someone having no clue how she was going down (the next day, she told her canteen circle it could easily have "gone the other way").
So, as in the previous episode, the baddy got away with it. Kev, not Brian, moved out; Mal and Bev are to marry. Clocking Off is grown-up stuff. In the next episode, we learn all about the machinist Freda. She has had one of the best lines, when a friend gave her a size-16 top and she said thanks but she was actually a 12: "A lot of people make that mistake. I've got a narrow back." My guess is that, when she is left to look after her daughter's children in the next episode, she'll prove to have a rather broad one. I'm looking forward to it.
Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London Evening Standard