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22 March 2023

The Cockfields is a genius, black-hearted British social comedy

I was hysterical with laughter watching this Diane Morgan-starring series from David Earl and Joe Wilkinson.

By Rachel Cooke

Most people will doubtless regard The Cockfields, in which a woman makes her first visit to her boyfriend’s parents’ home on the Isle of Wight, as yet another mildly amusing, somewhat black-hearted British social comedy – and fair enough, I suppose. Its sensibility is undeniably very similar to that of several other recent shows (After Life, Frayed, Motherland) starring Diane Morgan, who plays Donna, the woman in question.

But I’m not, it would appear, most people. During the second episode I became so hysterical with laughter my husband came into my office just to watch me. What’s so funny? he asked, after a while. Gasping for air, I tried to explain. “Toenails,” I panted. “The Tupperware… Canesten… on his lips… His pants, next to her face… Oh, God…”

Is it possible that David Earl and Joe Wilkinson, who wrote The Cockfields, have met my mother and stepfather? Or is it simply that my mother and stepfather are, er, less unusual than I’ve always assumed them to be? Either way, the whole thing is uncanny to the point of triggering, with the result that I’ve spent the last 24 hours wondering if I should instruct my siblings, via a series of highly personalised WhatsApp messages, to watch it (even now, I can’t decide: it could be therapy, or it could require therapy). One thing I do know, however, is that I fully understand why the BBC bought it from Gold, where it first screened in 2019. Who cares if they’re giving us sloppy seconds? It’s genius! I love every moment.

Simon (Joe Wilkinson) is turning 40, a birthday his family will mark with lunch in the garden (there will be gala pie, quiche and something whiffy featuring hard-boiled eggs). But poor Simon has the relatives from hell. In the best (and most unlikely) bit of casting since forever, his bullying Lancastrian stepfather, Ray, is played by Bobby Ball of Cannon and Ball fame, and it is mean little Ray with his currant eyes who sets the domestic mood.

Simon’s mother Sue (Sue Johnston) is a peacemaker who would rather indulge Ray than ever go against him, even if this means walking across a cricket pitch while a game is being played (Ray is adamant it’s a right of way); and so is Simon’s weird, unemployed stepbrother David (Ben Rufus Green), who still lives with them.

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As situations go, this is all very promising. But it requires, for maximum class-based agony, more than one foil, and the good news is that, as well as Donna, we have Simon’s posh, self-obsessed father, Larry (Nigel Havers, with a dye job and dressed like Chas & Dave) and his ghastly girlfriend, Melissa (Sarah Parish). Melissa is about to pour hot sauce all over Sue’s beige buffet by announcing that she is a bisexual who only had relationships with women before she met Larry the ageing lothario.

I can’t adequately explain why this series makes me laugh so much. A lot of it has to do with Morgan, whose expression flips between astonishment and full blown horror (the toenails, the Canesten) even as her tone remains deadpan. But there’s also something deliciously authentic about the writing, as if (I’m guessing) Earl and Wilkinson had simply sat in a room with their parents and written down every word. Early on, Donna gives Sue a bunch of flowers, and Ray says: “They’ll need to go in the lean-to, cos of me lips.” Either you find a line like this funny, or you don’t. Sadly, I do, and the same goes for: “I’m just going to open you a bottle of Shloer,” and, “Why is there is a bread knife in a jar by the loo?” and, “Dan Walker – he’s a creationist, you know.”

The Cockfields may well be more than the sum of its (ridiculous) parts. Darkness is layered beneath its warmth, and vice versa. It captures beautifully the way a family’s conversational tics can be a proxy for other emotions – the main one of these being love. But the more important thing, for me, is that watching it makes me feel as I always do when I visit what I still call home. Suddenly, I’m a teenager again, the kind of person who can be reduced to crazed tears of laughter by the simple words: “We saw Alan Titchmarsh in Morrisons.”

The Cockfields
BBC Two, 22 March, 10pm

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This article appears in the 22 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Banks on the brink