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9 November 2017

Motherland’s greatest achievement is perhaps its near universal appeal

Both parents and the happily child-free will enjoy this borderline revolutionary BBC Two comedy.

By Rachel Cooke

Hilarious though it is – for females of the species, here’s one reason to work harder on your Kegel exercises – perhaps the greatest achievement of Motherland (BBC Two, 7 November, 10pm) is its near universal appeal. I can’t believe anyone with a kid wouldn’t enjoy it: basically, this is respite care for the maternally exhausted. But for those who are contentedly child-free and sick to death of being told what they’re missing, it’s like watching some crazy Elizabethan revenge drama play out, with cup cakes where there should be rapiers.

Liz (Diane Morgan), who couldn’t care less about parenting if she tried, is my total heroine. I can’t begin to describe the fantasies I have about what she might ultimately do to Amanda (Lucy Punch), the sitcom’s ghastly, glazed alpha-mum.

Suffice to say these imaginings are even less pretty than the Minion cake Julia (Anna Maxwell Martin) baked for her daughter’s doomed birthday party in the first episode of the new series. (“It looks like an angry sweetcorn,” said Liz, as she arrived with some emergency shopping in the form of a “bag of choking hazards”.)

The party was, as with most things in Motherland, the result of the deranged competitiveness that hits Julia like methamphetamine whenever she is within 100 metres of Amanda. It was supposed to happen at Pizza Express, but when Amanda praised her for having side-stepped a “real” celebration, she couldn’t help herself. Forget the dough balls, she’d do it at home: full-on icing, shed loads of crisps, an entertainer called Animal Man. Liz was unimpressed. “Tell them you’ve hid a quid somewhere, and relax,” she instructed, eyeballing the white wine.

Animal Man, not unexpectedly, was rubbish, his safari suit no distraction from the fact that his travelling zoo amounted to three cats. Kevin the house husband (Paul Ready), the second most ineffably wet character in sitcom history after Frank Spencer, of whom he is reminiscent, tried to help out by wearing half-mast trousers and arriving with a flute he had carved from a carrot. But it was no good. He’s about as capable of charisma as he is of having sex with his wife. (Looking at their shared electronic diary, in which he’d carefully scheduled a bout of conjugal relations, he saw she’d already deleted his entry.)

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Meanwhile, mobster mum Liz tried to keep up Julia’s spirits. “One last job, you’re free, you’re out,” she said. Except there is no out, is there? The cuffs, whether velvet-lined or ringed with spikes, are permanent. Like any great comedy, Motherland’s best jokes lie in its essential veracity, and vice versa.

But it’s the underlying awareness of this particular certainty that makes the series’ writers (Sharon Horgan, Graham Linehan, Holly Walsh, and Helen Linehan) feel borderline revolutionary at times.

It seems this is to be the final series of Mackenzie Crook’s gentle, delicate metal-detection bromance Detectorists (BBC Four, 8 November, 10pm) and though I’ve never found it unmissable exactly, I mourn its impending departure. Being at times more of a reverie than a sitcom, it is like nothing else on television, for all that its subject – the inability of men to talk to one another, the various ways they get around the problem – is an old one.

If it is sweetly funny, it’s also full of pathos, its characters never quite getting what they want, or need. And where else are you going to hear people using expressions like “purse spill”? (In the world of the metal detectorists, this is what you call a hoard that comprises only a couple of pathetic coins.)

Andy (Crook) doesn’t like his new job as an archaeologist, and Lance (Toby Jones) is walking on eggshells now his daughter has moved back in. These problems, however, are as nothing compared to the news that a planned solar farm may threaten their favourite detecting spot. Will they be able to stop it? Fans will hope that as the clock ticks, they will make a discovery that will both vanquish the developers and provide Andy and the long-suffering Becky (Rachael Stirling) with enough cash to buy themselves a home. But my guess is that Crook is too much of a realist for happy endings. Don’t think Sutton Hoo; think more rusty scaffolding clamps. 

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This article appears in the 08 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory sinking ship