Couplings and recouplings

Television - Andrew Billen on the shocking moment when Cold Feet went six feet under

Rachel is dead and so, with her ashes scattered over one of the most iconic landscapes in television history, Cold Feet (ITV1) is buried. Rachel Bradley, as played by Helen Baxendale, was as near to a sex symbol as this comedy drama about six cold-footed yuppies produced. She was also materialistic, unfaithful, self-absorbed, tricky and had not the first clue about men, of whom her husband, Adam, as his name implied, was the archetype. When rumours flew that one of the characters would meet their maker at the end of the show's fifth season, Heat magazine's previewer nakedly prayed the corpse would indeed be Rachel.

Yet her death, caused by a moment of carelessness behind the wheel, was powerful and shocking, a tribute to the extent to which we have invested and believed in her. The scenes two Sundays ago in the curiously scrubbed and empty hospital as the cast waited for her to die were written without jokes, visual tricks or hummable soundtrack. The cast looked poleaxed and, at its head, James Nesbitt, as Adam, proved that his gifts extended beyond a talent for larkiness.

By last Sunday, he was making jokes again ("Anyone would think you've been to a funeral"), which provided opportunities to be told to make time to grieve and for the response that there is no right way to do so. The funeral, played to Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through the Grape-vine", was well judged. David, the childishly dimwit financier, unexpectedly found the right words where Karen, his estranged wife and Rachel's best friend, failed. Pete, true to form, made jokes that no one found funny. Most excitingly, his ex-wife Jenny returned from Manhattan heavily pregnant ("She's put on weight," observed David, unerringly). This happily turned out not to be a cameo appearance by Fay Ripley, but a chance for the Pete-Jen relationship to be exhumed.

Yet through your carefully extracted tears, you still winced at the obvious jokes that the show's writer, Mike Bullen, has never been able to resist. Rachel's ashes were carelessly spilt no fewer than three times before what was left of them was scattered over the cliff of Portmeirion, the location, as of course we were told, for that other long-gone, Sunday-night ITV treat, The Prisoner.

Cold Feet originated in an insufficiently watched pilot in 1998 which centred on Adam's wooing of Rachel, a humiliating process that ended with a rose up his bottom. Its subject was a generation of the middle classes (the class spread was from lower middle to upper middle but, in one of the programme's appeals to modernity, the divisions were not dwelt upon) who found it hard to settle. The series started as the six reluctantly began to marry and reproduce. As Karen said in her funeral oration: "Rachel and I grew up together: not that we knew each other as children. We just seemed so much younger when we met."

The first episode of the series proper, handily now being shown late on Sunday nights on ITV2, had Rachel and Adam squabbling over cohabitation, Jenny giving birth and David cheating on his home life with his work. The final episode of the fifth series had Jenny pregnant again, Rachel and Adam just (irrelevantly, as it turned out) negotiating the final financial rite of moving from rent to mortgage, and David going back to the office early from the funeral.

The finale bore comparison to the movie The Big Chill and Gary's death in thirty-something (like Gary, Rachel appeared as a ghost). But that death was all that was left to discuss was also the show's most irritating aspect. With six finely drawn and magnificently portrayed characters, there was room for much more interpersonal nuance than the series ever permitted. Instead of fully developed relationships, we got issues: infertility, alcoholism, adultery, adoption, homosexuality, separation, divorce, impotence, abortion, cancer, IVF and premature birth. Watching the first episode again, the plot looked almost meandering. By the penultimate series, tissues were coming and going with absurd rapidity and propelling the characters into unlikely couplings, uncouplings and recouplings.

Nor was its structure strong enough to bear the loss of a cast member. After Jenny's departure a few episodes into the last season, she was replaced by Jo, an Australian fitness instructor, who inexplicably fell for Pete. As Jo, Kimberley Joseph was slightly too young and slightly too pretty for the ensemble. Yet even her presence was not as out of place as that of the jewellery-bedecked smoothy Mark (Sean Pertwee) as Karen's new man. When Mark was belatedly exposed as a child hater and Jo as lusting mainly after Pete's passport, the only question was why Mike Bullen had taken so long to catch up with the rest of us.

But I come to praise not bury Cold Feet. Its themes were adult, its dialogue was smart, its use of fantasy at least as witty as Ally McBeal's. It was not about detectives. Its choice of music was exquisite. It must have done wonders for the self-esteem of Manchester, which came across as all chrome offices and wine bars. It understood that most people's highest ambition is for a loft conversion and how life mocks even that. Expiring not a moment too soon, in the midst of the slow death of ITV, Cold Feet proved that there was yet life.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.