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Preaching from the choir

Surely the BBC doesn’t think that viewers will put up with this rubbish?

So, into the sickly abyss vacated by Mistresses plops All the Small Things (Tuesdays, 9pm). Stand back if you don’t want to get splashed. All the Small Things stinks so strongly of cheese (or worse) that the makers should stick some kind of warning on it. “Danger!” it could say in the Radio Times. “Extreme stench emanating here.” As for its credibility rating, I put this at -10 (even Mistresses was only -5). You could watch it with ear mufflers on, and you’d still know it was preposterous.

Imagine the worst of Richard Curtis, morph it with something by the Children’s Film Foundation circa 1976, and throw in a few top-notes of rubbish TV from recent years – that drama about district nurses, say, or Cutting It, which, as it happens, was also written by Debbie Horsfield, the same person as wrote All the Small Things – and you’re still not even close. You are, in fact, miles away. You’re standing on top of the Blackpool Tower while All the Small Things is frantically hoofing it across the Pennines and then down a bit, in Filey.

It’s not set in Filey. It appears to be set in Glossop. I say "appears" because I know Glossop, and it makes The League of Gentlemen look like Terry and June. This Glossop, though, has a “Music Fest”, and its denizens – all of them! – are enthusiastic choral singers. Except, of course, for a tiny group of nasty bullies who, like nasty bullies everywhere, spit at people who are different from them – people who love to sing – and who wear hooded tops. But I’m running ahead of myself. Esther Caddick (Sarah Lancashire) and Michael Caddick (Neil Pearson) love singing; he is choirmaster at their church, she is lead soprano. Then a minx called Layla (Sarah Alexander) turns up at rehearsals. When Layla opens her mouth, it’s as if Joan Sutherland has walked in (Alexander is dubbed, which is embarrassing). And before you can say “Lucrezia Borgia”, Michael is thrust into a fully fledged mid-life crisis. He departs the marital home, frequents hip bars – who knew Glossop had such places? Not a bag of scratchings in sight – and holds one too many “extra” rehearsals.

Poor Esther. She must resign from the choir – and just as she was to sing Eve in Haydn’s Creation. But at least now she can devote time to her son, Kyle (Richard Fleeshman), who is weird and fragile, but also a closet rock star. Which gives her an idea . . . Why shouldn’t Kyle enter Music Fest? Provided he has nine singers, he will meet competition rules. And if this means that his band will be up against Dad and Dad’s hussy, so be it.

Now, look. I accept that the BBC, which runs on public money, must provide its share of middle-of-
the-road series, that it must be “inclusive”. What I can’t accept is that such shows need to be this bad. Do Debbie Horsfield and whoever commissioned this tosh really believe that viewers are so easily pleased? That they won’t feel patronised by such obvious box-ticking? It’s not only that Horsfield’s inspiration was clearly the reality show Last Choir Standing – quick, let’s have a bit more of that, but with actors! – or that this stuff is so appallingly preachy (so full of sappy messages about the joy of taking part that it’s reminiscent of sports day at my school in the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire some time in 1983).

It’s just so amazingly badly written. No one talks like this. No one says to their wife of 20 years: “Don’t you ever want to get out of your comfort zone?”

No wonder Pearson looks faintly embarrassed. I love Neil Pearson, for all that he resembles a Jersey Royal potato. But here, he is going through the motions, his all-purpose northern accent flickering like a miner’s lamp at 300 metres. (“Soomer brake!” he suddenly shouts, having hitherto sounded like a university lecturer from Reading. Translation: “Summer break.”)

The worst thing is, there’s another five hours of this ahead, even though we all know that Michael is going to learn his lesson, stop being so competitive, and retreat to the “comfort zone” of the marital couch. This is drama-by-numbers, eked out until it is thinner than a Communion wafer, and it sucks.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, God special issue