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Review: Starlings

For a while now, Sky has been going after female viewers – for whom football and blockbuster movies are perhaps less of a reason
to subscribe. The strategy seems to be to develop warm, unchallenging, dramatic comedies about family life that are set far away from
the British capital.

First they gave us, courtesy of Ruth Jones, Stella; now they’ve come up with Starlings, which is about a working-class family who live together, tightly packed, in a red-brick house in Matlock. It’s written by a couple of actors, Matt King and Steve Edge, both of whom also appear in it (King you will recognise as Super Hans in Peep Show), and it’s made by Steve Coogan’s production company, Baby Cow. It’s a little bit like Shameless in the sense that the family is loving, mutually supportive and chaotic. But it’s not at all like Shameless in the sense that these people have jobs, quirky hobbies, a warm, comfortable home and panoramic views of lush, green, rural Derbyshire.

Is it worth signing up to Sky for? Almost certainly not – though it might, I suppose, be one of those series that takes time to warm up. On the downside, it’s a bit soppy. The first episode (13 May, 8pm) opened with Bell (Rebecca Night), who is one of the Starlings’ three adult children, giving birth to a baby in the front room. In the birthing pool with her was her estranged boyfriend, Reuben (Ukweli Roach), who kept spouting (so predictable, this) great screeds of stuff he’d read in a pregnancy handbook and earnestly offering to massage her perineum. Yuck. Mopping her brow was her mum, Jan (Lesley Sharp).

When she finally popped and her son drew his first lusty breath of clean Derbyshire air, the whole family ran into the room, even as his umbilical chord – good work from the make-up department here! – was still attached to his tiny body: her father, Terry (Brendan Coyle); her brother, Gravy (John Dagleish); her sister, Charlie (Finn Atkins); and her grandfather (played by Alan Williams).

As they stood there, goggle-eyed, Terry then introduced the baby to them one by one, delivering a series of character sketches in an icky-wicky baby voice. Aaargh! If I were a new Sky customer, this is exactly the kind of thing that would have me wondering if the money wouldn’t have been better spent on new underwear.

But there are good things about it, too. The acting is certainly good: understated and natural. I’ve never seen the point of Brendan Coyle as the lame valet in Downton Abbey (but then, I’ve never seen the point of Downton Abbey, either). Here, though, he is unexpectedly believable.

My favourite character is Gravy, a boy trapped in an adult’s body, who has long conversations with his collection of newts and geckos. The writing – when it stops worrying about the cockles of its audience’s heart and how best to warm them – is also excellent. “Sounds like a fight between a pig and a gibbon,” said Gravy, as he listened to Bell’s screams. (This isn’t hilarious on the page, I know, but when he delivered it, I snorted). He then told his father he needed a hot Vimto.

King and Edge drop something pleasingly surreal into even the most quotidian conversations. “I was just popping to Halfords,” said Reuben, on his first visit to see Bell and the baby. “I wondered if you needed anything.” In a scene in which the family gathered to wet the baby’s head, Grandad was offered a cocktail that included brandy. “Last time I had a brandy, I woke up on a ferry,” he said.

Pleasingly, characters also make reference to some of the naffest and least noticed (at least by TV drama) elements of British life. When was the last time you heard someone on television refer to the awful chain of cafés you find in British stations – the Lemon Tree? I do wonder, though, if the series has a sufficiently big engine, plot-wise.

It feels so inconsequential. Terry is worried about something. We know this because part one ended with him leaning in agonised fashion on the side of his late mother-in-law’s ­caravan. But will finding out why his brow is so furrowed – money? sex? the traffic in Matlock? – make Starlings a hit?

My guess is: probably not

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 first appeared in the 21 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, European crisis