Trouble in parasite paradise

Television - Andrew Billen surrenders to the tragic comedy of Paul Abbott's shameless family

The opening of episode two of Shameless (Tuesdays, 10pm, Channel 4) truncated the first episode's prefatory remarks. In them, Frank, father of the shameless Gallagher family, explained: "No one is saying the Chatsworth Estate is the Garden of Eden - or at least I don't think they are - but it's been a good home to us." The parenthesis strongly suggested that the author of the series, Paul Abbott, would be saying precisely that: that there's more joy to be found in the rough and tumble of Britain's poorest council estates than in the comfortable sterility of, say, the Devonshires' Chatsworth. It seemed wise to remove the caveat. There was now real trouble in parasite paradise. Frank, initially mistaken by his family for a recumbent tent in the corner of the room, had disappeared. More to the point, he had disappeared on the morning of the day his Giro check arrives, a day when, for obvious reasons, he makes a point of sticking around.

Frank, as he likes to tell well-wishers when articulacy occasionally seizes him, is a single parent, heroically bringing up six children after their mother vanished. His eldest daughter, Fiona, concedes that his workload immediately doubled when his missus left - but given that she did nothing around the house either, this still amounts to Frank doing nothing. In practice, the children run themselves, and yet their consequent spirit of self-reliance is something Frank congratulates himself on.

But the second episode found Frank in trouble thanks to one of his entrepreneurially minded offspring. Ian, who charges other kids for doing their homework, accepted payment in kind from young Karen Jackson, the payment in kind being a blow job under her dining-room table. Her pious father, Eddie, chanced to see this and went berserk, storming out and lying in wait at the pub for Frank, determined to visit the sins of the son on the father. When the local news reported that a body had been found in the local canal, the younger Gallaghers feared the worst.

However, the dummy the police pulled up was not Frank but a mannequin with "Drugs Don't Work" on its forehead - a misguided attempt by the police to publicise their war on drugs. Frank had not passed over, or at least he had only passed over (or under) the Channel. He woke in Calais and, shortly afterwards, in a police cell, where a malicious local linguist told the gendarmerie that their prisoner had confessed to being a drug smuggler whose dearest held belief is that "the French are all fuckers". Having pleaded guilty to a drugs offence he was not even charged with, he was eventually released and returned to Manchester a local hero.

It was not Eddie who wreaked this comic vengeance on Frank, but his eldest daughter's suitor, Stephen. Stephen is not as nice as he seems. Masquerading as Fiona's middle-class saviour, his actual job is stealing posh cars. But even before this was revealed, we suspected him. For the rest of the cast, Abbott has written only slightly elevated dialogue, much of it very funny. But Stephen gets to spout poetry, telling Fiona: "You're not fake. You're not lost so you don't need finding. You're not trapped so you don't need spying." He thinks he's better than the Gallaghers, but neither Fiona nor Abbott agrees.

The other sub-plot, aside from the Fiona/Stephen romance, is Ian's homosexuality (the oral sex was wasted on him). He is actually having it off with the owner of the local Asian corner shop, a complicated scandal summarised by his brother's parody of the tabloid headline it would make: "Fake Muslim cheats on white fundamentalist wife with gutless gay boy." There was a hint here that Abbott is at risk of reverting to the kind of social-issue drama that blights so much British television, but it is so far only a hint.

In any case, episode two belonged to Frank, played by the exemplary David Threlfall with perhaps a small debt to Ozzy Osbourne. It was just good to see him standing up. In episode one, he spent so much time horizontal and/or asleep that it was as if the Gallagher story was being told by the corpse in William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. His resurrection on his return from France was handled as a kind of double baptism, first in the river he never fell into and then in Eddie's wife's bath. Eddie's wife, now that Eddie has left her life, turns out, beneath the agoraphobia and prissy vocabulary ("Hark at her, Desperate Daisy!"), to love slightly kinky sex. This suits Frank very well and he moves in with her, things turning out as well for the rogue as they tend to do for the protagonist of the Just William stories.

Not all previous TV dramas set on no-hope estates have been grey and doomy: Penny Woolcock's Tina films springs to mind. But if we disregard The Royale Family, Abbott's largely autobiographical work is the first series to tap the tragically comic potential of the jobless working class since Boys from the Blackstuff. His bang-on dialogue (Eddie: "Our Karen was only 12 when I heard her use the c-word, and on a Sunday." Frank: "Fuck!") is matched by the kind of acting that does not look like acting.

I have been resistant to much of Abbott's work up until now, finding it either too neat or too elliptical. I surrender wholeheartedly this time.

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.

This article first appeared in the 26 January 2004 issue of the New Statesman, NS Special Report - The killing fields