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8 August 2014updated 03 Aug 2021 2:30pm

Soapy and box-ticking: Rachel Cooke on Kay Mellor’s In the Club

This is a plot so grossly overloaded, so swollen with coincidences, that it makes EastEnders look lithe and minimalist.

By Rachel Cooke

In the Club
BBC1

It’s that time of the year when the big channels slip stuff out – slightly embarrassing stuff they doubtless hope people will miss while they’re on holiday, or out in their gardens torching sausages on their barbecues. The BBC’s new six-part drama In the Club (Tuesdays, 9pm), written by Kay Mellor (Fat Friends, The Syndicate), must be high on the list of these programmes, for all that it has been heavily trailed (hell, they might as well grab what audience they can from among those who failed to bag themselves a passport or hate eating outdoors). This is the kind of soapy, tick-box show that will make any sane viewer squirm at best and throw up at worst. It’s a wonder to me that it got a green light in the first place.

Each episode is an hour long. In the first, the following happened: a lonely schoolgirl gave birth to a baby while her father lay unconscious in his van after a late-night accident; a wife discovered that she was about to have twins while her newly redundant husband dashed into a bank and robbed it; an elderly primigravida businesswoman returned to her toy-boy lover following a frustrating meeting with her divorce lawyer, during which she gave up on the £3m she was owed by her ex; a pregnant lesbian snogged the father of the baby she is expecting while her partner was busy spending quality time with their troubled son; and a young Asian woman worried aloud about her maternal instincts, giving us what seemed to me to be a pretty obvious hint that she will shortly be struck down by post-natal depression.

By the way, I’ve been succinct here; I could very easily go on. This is a plot so grossly overloaded, so swollen with coincidences, that it makes EastEnders look lithe and minimalist.

These women, as the eagle-eyed will have spotted, all have one thing in common. They probably wouldn’t know each other in everyday life – they are from a number of social backgrounds – but they met at something called “parentcraft”, which is basically Brownies for people who are up the duff.

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At parentcraft sessions and down the pub afterwards, their differences matter not a jot. The girls talk about their ankles, their piles, their wind and their desire (or not) to have an epidural. The boys, their partners, drink pints and make jokes about how delightfully large their women’s breasts now are. Meanwhile, Neil (Jonathan Kerrigan), the father of the lesbian couple’s babies, looks on indulgently. We are in Leeds, after all. No need to get PC about it.

I watched this with mounting horror, loathing the ripe sentimentality. “Ah, look, a baby!” shouts the script, which relies on the sight of a rosebud newborn to stir our emotions rather than on any decent writing. But my overriding response was a feeling of solidarity with the women actors who are the stars: Hermione Norris, Tara Fitzgerald, the brilliant Katherine Parkinson (currently appearing on BBC2 in the rather more classy The Honourable Woman). Poor them. To bag a big part in a BBC1 series and then for it to turn out like this!

Fitzgerald, in particular, is all frowns, as if the effort of breathing life into so many clichés is just too much. Norris sails coolly along, hand permanently on her designer bump. Yet, while her eyes are beseeching, the viewer no more believes in her character’s relationship with her art student boyfriend than in elves or the promises of politicians. In her fractious meeting with her ex-husband, my overwhelming feeling was that she should go back to him and fast – hardly the effect Mellor was after.

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She seems to have based the entire series on a lie. Do pregnant women inevitably bond? Does impending motherhood, like some weird biological trump card, override all other considerations? No, it doesn’t. I don’t, thank God, know anyone who has attended parentcraft classes. However, I have several friends who couldn’t wait to escape the bogus bonhomie of their antenatal classes. They would no sooner have headed to the pub for a St Clement’s and a discussion about breast pumps than they would have swapped Kate Atkinson for Gina Ford.