Some TV shows are relatively easy to pin to the page; I could flip you 700 words on why Countryfile makes me feel faintly ill and barely break a sweat. Others, though, are trickier to capture. Flowers, Channel 4’s new comedy-drama (its description, not mine), was screened over five consecutive nights this week past; and since the series’ end, which you may not yet have seen, was in its beginning, my hands are tied if I’m not to ruin it for you.
It was also odd, almost indescribably so. What began as the bastard child of Wes Anderson and Roald Dahl, arch, spiky and misanthropic, turned after four episodes into something more plangent and humane, as if Dahl had morphed into E Nesbit somewhere along the way. It didn’t always work. The sadness wrestled the comedy to the ground. Yet I can’t quite bring myself to describe it as a failure.
It began in a wood with a Jackanory-style voice-over: “From a weird reverie of dark revelation, Mr Grub woke up with a strange sensation . . .” There was talk of cawing collywobbles and scurrying dingle-baggles. But as a bearded figure placed a noose around his neck, the poem grew less bucolic. “In the sludge, just a few feet away, Mr Grub saw a plant that was quite out of place, a single buttercup on a pile of faeces . . . Mr Grub tore it up into a thousand pieces.” The noose pulled tight, after which we heard a loud crack: a branch breaking. The bearded figure lay on the ground, cursing. Gathering up his rope furtively, he headed indoors.
This was Maurice (Julian Barratt, on superb form), a children’s writer and the creator of the best-selling Grub books, on which he works with his adoring Japanese illustrator, Shun (Will Sharpe, also the series writer). Inside, we met his wife, Deborah (Olivia Colman, perfectly cast), a trombone teacher, and their grown-up children, Donald (Daniel Rigby), an “inventor”, and Amy (Sophia Di Martino), an artist. All five, we grasped in an instant, were like bumblebees in raspberry jam: trapped, unable to escape their nest, a rambling but decrepit picture-book house surrounded by fields and trees. They were, in fact, just like characters in a children’s story, child-men and child-women in a world that had once been enchanted but was now cursed, its very air filled with despair.
There were a few (nominally) funny bits. Donald, a prepubescent Professor Branestawm, claimed to be tweaking one of his inventions, but when the camera panned to his notebook, we saw only a Biro scribble. Amy wondered whether her nana had fallen while trying to reach her hatch: “She might have been hoarding another crow.” A neighbour revealed that she was trying to keep herself healthy with a combination of “kundalini and anal breathing”. There were several farcical misunderstandings to do with both language (Shun) and sex (everyone else). But these gags grew more scattered as the thing went on. By the time Maurice and Deborah were driving to a hotel in the Albatross – an old banger to which Donald had attached wings and an altimeter – I no longer had any laughter in me. The writing had grown so bleak.
This was about depression and how it might be survived. Sometimes there are good, if abidingly sad, reasons why people can’t, or won’t, grow up.
I won’t give you 700 words on Countryfile, though in the Guardian recently Simon Jenkins gave us even more than that, calling the series – his Sunday treat – TV’s most political show, on the grounds that its eight million viewers have it in their power to shape an election. But I will give you 70. I can’t stand it. Two words: Matt Baker. And another dozen or so: there is something so very North Face about it, by which I mean that we seem to see only the branded, idealised bits of the countryside. We certainly never step inside, or even clap eyes on, a farmhouse like the one owned by the hardscrabble Garrses in Happy Valley.
Even so, Jenkins is right. The Labour Party in particular underestimates the love many of its city-dwelling voters have for the moor and the field, the pheasant and the Herdwick, for green spaces generally. I remember telling Ed Miliband this crossly to his face at the height of the foot-and-mouth crisis – and look what happened to him.
This article appears in the 27 Apr 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism