The world burns, and we seek metaphorical shade in the not-too-distant past. In supermarkets, sales of Arctic roll are up; in the cinema, Barbie is plastic fantastic; and on television, we have The Power of Parker, a comedy set in Stockport in 1990 that will be only half comprehensible to anyone under 45, bulging as it is with jokes about Juliet Bravo and Anneka Rice. Watching another episode the other night, I thought of that year, which I remember well – the summer of 1990 was also record-breaking, with wildfires breaking out on the moorlands a short drive from our house – and wondered that I’d been so innocent. My idea of an apocalypse back then was a Conservative victory at the next general election – and when that happened, the sky did not, after all, fall in, and I went on ignoring pretty much everything save for Tony Blair’s hair and teeth.
But I’m going off-piste (it must be the anxiety). The Power of Parker is written by Sian Gibson and Paul Coleman, who previously worked together on Peter Kay’s Car Share. It stars Gibson, Rosie Cavaliero and Conleth Hill, who played a drunk Smurfette (aka Elsie) in the best ever episode of Car Share, and it comes with a soundtrack that features – just count them – the Teardrop Explodes, Human League, Dead or Alive and the Jam. Honestly, what’s not to like? Take a Fab lolly out of the freezer, and knock yourself out with the entire series.
I do know – take this as fair warning – that not everyone will find it funny. But if you’re a certain kind of person, of a certain age, from a certain kind of place… I laughed out loud when Kath (Gibson) asked her sister when she last had sex with her husband, and she replied: “[It] was after Elkie Brooks at Stockport Plaza… to be fair, it was a very sensual show.” (If you get it, you get it; if you don’t, you may be from Ealing or Tokyo.)
Keith Parker (Hill) is the owner of a small chain of electrical stores and a minor local personality (the TV ads we see for his shops, small masterpieces of wooden acting, finger pointing and cheesy sales-speak, are such a bonus of this series, as Proustian for me as mint Viscount biscuits or the smell of Blue Stratos). Life, for him, should be good. He drives a Mercedes, owns a mobile phone the size of the Yellow Pages, and lives in a detached house that has – a key word, this, for the upwardly mobile of the late Eighties – a drive.
But he’s also in the eye (blue mascara) of a storm. Rumbelows (a chain, dear children, that once rivalled Currys) is snapping at his heels, and so are the Slater family, crooks to whom he’s in hock. To save cash, he evicts Kath, who cuts hair in an old people’s home and happens to be his mistress, from a property he owns – a big mistake. She isn’t going quietly. Parker’s wife Diane (Cavaliero) is about to find out that she isn’t the only woman in his life and the timing really couldn’t be worse: half the PTA is in her sitting room, eating the Brie she’s laid on in honour of the French exchange student her daughter has staying.
Like so many comedies now, The Power of Parker is set over a period of increasingly frenzied days; it’s written as farce, in other words, disaster spiralling outwards like Kath’s strawberry blonde curls. But Gibson and Coleman have brought with them from Car Share both a lovely warmth and an eye for the lives of regular (not ordinary) people. The scenes in the old people’s home are lovely, its residents delighting in Kath’s complicated private life, chewing on it as if on a toffee.
I wonder whether Hill isn’t slightly miscast as Keith (though he’s good, of course) but Gibson and Cavaliero are both excellent, their perfect timing and way with pathos a reminder that more comedy – more everything – should be written for women their age. I love Gibson. The way she’s able simultaneously to convey a particular wide-eyed innocence with something a lot more, well, smutty is a gift. “Life’s not all Mills & Boon, Kath,” Diane says to her at one point. To which she dreamily replies, her lips slightly pursed: “It depends what bra you wear.” On the page, it’s hardly a hoot. But on screen, it’s comic perfection: a line redolent at once both of the suburbs and of the end of the pier.
The Power of Parker
BBC One, 28 July, 9.30pm; now on catch-up
[See also: Why Richard Ayoade’s Submarine still feels fresh]
This article appears in the 26 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special