A Canary Wharf cleaner who takes up insider dealing in ITV’s Cleaning Up

Plus: the return of Channel 4 comedy Catastrophe.

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In Cleaning Up (9pm, 9 January) Sheridan Smith plays Sam, a Canary Wharf cleaner who takes up insider dealing the better to pay off her gambling debts. This is completely preposterous, of course, but the series also comes with a stickily sentimental, lightly Dickensian atmosphere that might be just right for this time of year. Watching it, still slightly bloated on Quality Street and family tension, I found myself thinking: oh, why the hell not? Yes, it seems pretty unlikely that having casually overheard a City boy discuss his dodgy doings on his mobile late one night, our heroine almost immediately begins installing a listening device in his office. Still, I went with it. Buy those shares, Sam, and let bleach and Cif and stinky mops forever belong to your past!

Sam’s problems are legion; if this were Dickens rather than the work of newcomer Mark Marlow, she would already be on her way to the workhouse. As it is, she must contend with a debt collector called Warren (Neil Maskell) who stands outside her mullioned bay window yelling the odds. She owes him £17,000. Her ex-husband Dave (Matthew McNulty) wants custody of their two daughters – the older one of whom is in a massive sulk since her mother nicked her bedroom and gave it to a lodger called Glynn (Robert Emms) – and all her credit cards are maxed out. Even washing powder is beyond her means just now. And yet still, she cannot give up the online casino, the virtual roulette wheel that turns and turns but never coughs up anything more than an inviting “SPIN AGAIN”.

Now, though, salvation is at hand. It turns out that Sam is both highly numerate (when her daughter asks how to calculate the circumference of a circle, her mother doesn’t hesitate), and that her PhD student lodger is a dab hand with electronic relics procured from the internet (she gives him an iffy story about how she will use the bug to check her friend’s boyfriend is not cheating). She looks up insider dealing on Wikipedia, borrows Investing in Shares for Dummies from the library, and – ta-dah – it isn’t long before she has bought stock in a company that is about to be involved in a major merger, at which point her money is going to grow and grow. It’ll be like watching the Blue Peter totaliser, minus the milk bottle tops and the ring-pulls. Will she get caught? My guess is that the eavesdropped trader will go down, but that Sam, sweet and smiling and always prepared to forgo the last fish finger should someone hungrier than her need it, somehow emerges as the moral victor.

Speaking of moral victors, in Catastrophe (10pm, 8 January) Rob (Rob Delaney), having been convicted of drink-driving, is now condemned to spend his weekends working in a charity shop – something that Sharon (Sharon Horgan) is not going to let him forget in a hurry, given that she must now spend her weekends alone with two small children. Then again, occupying the high ground isn’t really her thing, or not for long. And so it is that, pissed off after an interminable morning in a museum, she embarks on a little light criminality herself, swapping the price tags on a child’s toy and a pair of jeans, thus enabling her naughtily to pay less for them. The security guard who deals with her when she’s caught tells her that, with their 27 inch waist, the jeans wouldn’t have fitted her anyway.

There are so many things to love about Catastrophe, not least the way it pays attention to the smallest details in the matter of relationships; when Sharon rings Rob’s mobile, for instance, she still comes up as “Sharon London Sex”. But what I mostly love about it is Sharon, from the stubborn set of her jaw, which is like Tower Bridge when it’s halfway up (or down), to the way she drinks a margarita (as if she is eight, and it is Tizer). I love the way she picks a fight – I’m not very courageous like that – and I love the way that, once she’s started, every accusation instantly spirals into a flight of fancy; her pugnaciousness, being so outlandish, is delightful rather than tedious, as it would be in almost anyone else. Above all, I love it when she sulks. Sharon Horgan’s bottom lip: what a magnificent thing it is, and with such good comic timing, too. 

Cleaning Up (ITV)
Catastrophe (Channel 4)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 11 January 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit Showdown