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24 March 2020

Why This Country is one of the most radical TV shows ever written

The pitch-perfect mockumentary began, three series ago, by being hilariously funny. But by the time it ended, it had turned into something quite different.

By Rachel Cooke

I think we all know by now that in their pitch-perfect mockumentary This Country, Daisy May Cooper and Charlie Cooper have given us the Cotswolds with added chiaroscuro; that here is the English countryside the middle classes prefer not to see, a world of pebble-dashed council houses, crap cars and rubbish leisurewear, as opposed to honey-coloured mansions with bay trees by their doors and deliveries from Boden arriving every other minute. But if it was only this, I don’t think I would love it as I do. Ultimately, This Country’s great subject isn’t class, but kindness: what it feels like to give it (quite brave, sometimes), and what it feels like to receive it (a blessing, in the truest sense of that word). People call it derivative. They mention The Office and Twenty Twelve. But I can’t agree. There are moments when I think it might be one of the most radical TV shows ever written.

It began, three series ago, by being hilariously funny. (After I watched the final episode, I went back to the first one – it’s all on iPlayer – in which Charlie Cooper’s Kurtan entered the village scarecrow competition, and was driven slightly mad by his own competitiveness. He was particularly irked, you may recall, by the sight of a wickerwork dalek, a creation that, with its death-ray made from a bamboo garden flare, I will always regard as the best prop ever produced by terrestrial television.) But by the time it ended, it had turned into something quite different: a plangent thing rather than a satirical, farcical one.

Its focus narrowed, and then narrowed again; June, Len and various other minor characters we saw only in the distance, as if through a telescope – though we could still hear Kerry’s mum, Sue, shouting from her bedroom (Sue’s voice is what you get if you cross a winter storm drain with a duty free-sized box of Benson & Hedges). In the end, it was like Pinter or Beckett or something: the stage was occupied only by our permanently broke and bored cousins Kerry (Daisy May Cooper) and Kurtan, and their friend the Vicar, the Rev Francis Seaton (Paul Chahidi).

The Vicar, who looks like a doodle of a seal and is played so exquisitely by Chahidi, has nurtured Kerry and Kurtan through all 18 episodes of This Country, watering them like two neglected houseplants. He has been there for them during every disaster, every barefaced lie, and every bout of “effing and jeffing”. But now – and there will be spoilers from here on – he’s off to a new parish in Bristol. Naturally, they take this badly, experiencing it as rejection, turning their old self-loathing on him instead by backdating his generosity as Machiavellian manipulation. “Who even is the Archbishop?” asks Kurtan, furiously. “I’ve never heard of him.” And then, in his bedroom at his nan’s, directly to the camera: “He’s like Jigsaw in the Saw films.” (Jigsaw is a sadistic serial killer, in case you’re not au fait with the Saw franchise.) Cut to the next scene in which the Vicar, in discussion with another Bristol priest, takes the words “needle exchange” for something to do with embroidery.

The Vicar’s capacity for hurt is almost as great as that of Kerry and Kurtan. But when he feels it, his almost-instinct is to turn the other cheek, to redouble his efforts to make them feel loved – and if he does this, in part, only because he wants them to love him back, well, you hardly care. He asks Kerry to be the village’s Lord of the Harvest, replacing Arthur, who has held the role since 1972 and only used it for the pose, “grinning like he’s Bob fucking Geldof” while holding a giant marrow. He turns up at Kurtan’s with a waffle-maker for his new flat (a flat that we all know will never become a reality). And these strategies work. Kurtan thinks they could get the Vicar to “crumble like a Jenga in a hurricane” if only they put a bit more pressure on him. But in the end, they’re the ones who crumble. He and Kerry are such children; the entire series is built on this. But now, in This Country’s epiphanic final moments, they emerge as adults. “You’re a legend,” they tell him, words that he receives, head bowed, like a sacrament. 

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This article appears in the 25 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The crisis chancellor