BBC One’s The Other One: funny, rude and piercingly sad

In this comedy of affairs and second wives, we see the family as I like to see it: generous, expansive, richly humane. 

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Thanks largely to my father’s somewhat hectic marital schedule, I have a more than usually complicated family – which is, perhaps, why I feel inclined to stick up for The Other One (5 June, 9pm), Holly Walsh’s comedy about a young woman who discovers that her recently deceased dad has been keeping a secret family down the road. Where others may find it improbable, I ­often find myself nodding in recognition; where they may think it mawkish, I can only swallow hard and make a note to text my sisters. Like many comedies lately – I may have said this before – it’s not always very funny; often, in fact, it’s piercingly sad. But I like it a lot. This is the family as I like to see it: generous, expansive, richly ­humane. Here are people wise enough to grasp that reconfiguration, however painful, may result in a net gain rather than a net loss.

In the pilot for The Other One, first screened in 2017, Colin Walcott came home to a surprise birthday party organised by his wife, Tess (Rebecca Front), and promptly dropped dead from a heart attack brought on by the fact that his cover story – a bloke called Rupert, with whom he said he was having a drink – was among the friends ­hiding behind his kitchen counter.

Thus his double life of 30 years was duly revealed to Tess and her daughter Catherine, aka Cathy (Ellie White). Colin, it turned out, had a mistress called Marilyn (Siobhan Finneran) and a daughter called, er, yes, Catherine, aka Cat (Lauren Socha), born just five days after her newly discovered half-sister. Cue the funeral from hell, and quite a lot of argy-bargy over Colin’s ashes. Cathy, who is middle class, wanted to scatter them at a  local beauty spot; Cat, who is not, thought the best place would be the children’s ­sandpit where she lost her virginity.

When the new episodes begin (they’re all on BBC iPlayer from 5 June), Tess isn’t having any of Marilyn or Cat. Quite apart from her hurt, she thinks them ghastly and ­common. In any case, she’s too busy going quietly mad to pay them any attention, ­flirting outrageously with Cathy’s ultra-vain ­former geography teacher (Stephen Tomkinson with Kardashian eyebrows), and trying her best to ruin Cathy’s ­forthcoming wedding to drippy Marcus (Amit Shah).

More alarmingly, she has started ­using gifs. But Cathy’s heart is more porous. If she is alarmed by Marilyn’s memories of her father (“he was a sexual shire horse”) and panicking about how to deal with Cat’s blithe assumption that she will be her new-found sister’s maid of honour, she’s also drawn to their warmth and ­straightforwardness, to their conviction that they are all, in the end, family. There is a sweetness between the chalk and cheese Catherines that makes my heart feel like a pancake being flipped. One skips on egg shells, the other comes blasting an emotional foghorn. But they both miss their dad, whom they loved and who loved them back. Why shouldn’t they try each other out for size? Why shouldn’t there be recognition and even affection as well as – OK – mounting bewilderment and (on Cathy’s part) stifled horror.

Oh, Gawd. I’m sounding mawkish myself now, which is bad because I don’t want to put you off. There are funny bits, honestly – quite rude ones, too. “I’ve been researching reliably hard woods,” says Cathy, of the memorial bench she hopes to organise for Colin. To which Marilyn can only reply: “That’s very apt for your father.” (Finneran is brilliant in this part; she and Front, all hormones and hair, are both perfection.)

Walsh has an ear for the ludicrously quotidian, building jokes around, among other things, Shloer, Nordic walking, mooncups, Flybe uniforms, the Duke of Edinburgh Awards, and Escape to the Chateau, and her show comes with the grooviest soundtrack: T-Rex, Fleetwood Mac, Supertramp (Colin’s favourite song was Supertramp’s “Goodbye Stranger”). Four episodes in, and I’m fully sweet on brassy Cat and prissy Cathy, ­randy Marilyn and raging Tess. Plaudits – and many glasses of something a lot stronger than Shloer – to Walsh, for not only creating these brilliant parts for women, but gamely stretching the elastic of family, the better to let us hear the joy in its tautest twang. 

The Other One

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 05 June 2020 issue of the New Statesman, We can't breathe

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