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23 December 2022

Motherland festive special: A Christmas Carol for the Mumsnet generation

This special edition of Sharon Horgan’s BBC One comedy is perfect in every way, save for the fact that it is only half an hour long.

By Rachel Cooke

When Liz (Diane Morgan) reveals in the opening scene of Motherland: Last Christmas that her ex has “won the meat raffle” and will, as a result, be hosting the big day for her and the children, it is a portent straight out of the pages of Thomas Hardy. Lee, after all, is a gold-plated prat: even the accidental bagging of a few frozen chipolatas seems far beyond his talents. Sure enough, on Christmas morning, the last-minute text of doom duly appears. Lee finds himself unaccountably marooned in Cardiff, a fact that leaves Liz with only one possible course of action.

To the house of Julia (Anna Maxwell Martin) she and her kids will have to go, squeezing in alongside Kevin (Paul Ready), who is on day release from the Ibis hotel that is his home post-divorce (the Abyss, Liz calls it). Kevin, delighted to have escaped a session around the hotel vending machine eating turkey-flavoured crisps with all the other divorced dads, is about to cook up a Persian feast. “I’m going to need some muslin to drain my curd,” he says, brightly. No, not a euphemism. Kevin is about as frisky as a family-sized turkey crown. 

As you will perhaps already have detected – isn’t my prose today tinselled with rare fervency? – I think the Motherland Christmas special is perfect in every way save for the fact that it is only half an hour long. For the lover of all things festive, this episode of Sharon Horgan and co’s exquisitely written show comes with a moment of pure sentiment, one that is beautifully done: here is A Christmas Carol for the Mumsnet generation, starring Julia as Ebenezer Scrooge (though she wears a furry onesie rather than a long nightshirt). But let’s face it. Many of us, if not most, secretly loathe Christmas, for which reason it’s a blessing that the mush is also carefully controlled. Like bread sauce, it should not be dribbled over everything. 

At this time of year, after all, it’s a rare treat to have an outlet for one’s simple misanthropy; a place to put your gift-wrapped fear and loathing of being trapped indoors with people who were full of hot air even when they started on the sprouts. Every time a character swigs the Baileys – across the road from Julia, Meg (Tanya Moodie), does this with particular aplomb, pulling at the bottle as if it was the Key to All Mythologies in liquid form – it’s all I can do not to cheer. Liz! Julia! Meg! Here are my people, all three of them already (at approximately 11am) too pissed to give half a toss about where Kevin’s boureki has been (on the floor, mostly).

A Christmas special, done right, is inevitably an homage. We all grew up on the things; we have expectations. We require jokes about, say, deranged, life-sapping presents, but somehow these jokes must also be made shiny and new. Julia’s deranged, life-sapping present is a cryo-tub, the modish opposite of hot tub, and it isn’t long before Paul (Oliver Chris), the husband who gave it to her – “it burns off cellulite!” – is shivering pathetically outside in his pants. No spoilers, but Paul is the kind of man whose mind turns to stilton, and whether he might be allowed to start on it, even after someone has just died. (I know men like this; I guess you could say I grew up on them, too.)

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The Christmas special must also come with visitors, relatives who are blithely unaware of those labouring around them (“there’s someone at the door, Julia!”) and critical to the point of cannibalism. Amanda (Lucy Punch) is to spend a “blended family” Christmas with her ex, his new wife, Tamara, and her endlessly castigatory mother, Felicity (Joanna Lumley), who has dressed Amanda’s children like “minor royals” for the day, and has taken to referring to herself as their “Gan Gan”. Hmm. While it’s doubtless deeply sad – pathetic, even – that I know even without recourse to Google that Gan Gan is what Prince George called the late Queen, I take straightforward pride in my wild, almost crazed enjoyment of Motherland. How very seen it makes me feel.

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I gather that there are people who wonder what’s remotely funny about the sight of a mother chucking her little darlings’ art projects in the nearest bin on the last day of school (PLEASE TAKE YOUR CHILDREN’S WORK HOME WITH YOU, reads the sign Julia wilfully ignores, a tiny faux squeal her only concession to maternal pride – or maternal anything). But I’m not one of them. “I’d Instagram that if I was a dick,” says Liz of her Christmas table settings… er, crackers from Bargain Booze or similar. I laughed out loud at this line: the way she shrugged it out, nonchalant in her Christmas sweater. But these are also words that might help a person to win the meat raffle of life; words that should probably be applied, in the broadest sense, to absolutely everything, all the time. The law according to Motherland, which applies to both parents and non-parents alike, goes something like this… don’t show off about things that are only the result of good luck. Don’t show off, full stop. Try not to be a dick. 

Motherland: Last Christmas
BBC One, 23 December, 9.30pm; and then on catch-up

[See also: The best films of 2022]

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