You may have, like me, seen trailers for Jam and Jerusalem and dismissed it out of hand. Oddball characters roaming around the countryside and what at a brief glance looked like local theatre production theatres made it look like Sunday evening, twee-stuff-happening-in-the-country nonsense. If that’s what the BBC commissioned, it certainly isn’t what they got. The last episode included a gag after a biscuit judging contest about someone having their fingers all over one character’s chocolate starfish.
I missed out on the whole first series for being so judgemental. It’s quite possibly the only programme that doesn’t reduce the countryside to being an amusing daydream for city folk. Instead, it is the must delicately observed comedies on TV at the moment, making Peep Show look like an exercise in gross stereotyping. At its heart is Sal and Tip, two middle-aged friends who are trying to deal with a woman’s guild of women they are desperately trying not to become.
Like Last of the Summer Wine, dealing with old people means that there were evidently dozens of talented actors available to make the show. (Unlike LOTSW, Jam and Jerusalem doesn’t go in for borderline-farce, so please don’t let that comparison put you off.) To make that happens takes a talented cast who know who to wend the line between comedy and poignancy, and the cast comprises several icons-to-be, plus a who’s who of British comedy in the last twenty years. There is *takes a deep breath* Sue Johnston (The Royle Family) and Pauline McLynn (Father Ted) as Sal and Tip, French and Saunders (um, French and Saunders) as an unhinged cleaning lady and the posh landowner (“you know how when you’re doing the house that you fold my clingfilm? Well, could you not do it?”), and the beautiful pairing of Doreen Mantle (Jean from One Foot in the Grave) and Maggie Steed (from the strangely overlooked Shine on Harvey Moon) as the losing-it old woman and the wannabe chair of the guild who are at constant risk of being shut out of everything altogether.
The younger cast takes in David Mitchell playing, well, David Mitchell – who in any case is in risk of taking Myleene Klass’s Crown Of TV Ubiquity if he isn’t careful – and Sally Phillips and Simon Farnaby as hippies who will never quite get it on. The cast is largely women, which, at the risk of being heckled as a horrendous sexist, doesn’t reek of comedy potential. But the character studies for each are so careful that the programme works.
What is even more shocking is that this completes Jennifer Saunders from a comedy also-ran into one of the most sharp observers of modern-day life. The Life and Times of Vivienne Vyle could have been a one-note pastiche of Jeremy Kyle, but proved to be such a good idea that the programme didn’t flag over an entire series. Jam and Jerusalem does a fine line in both one-liners and running jokes.
Alongside that are very touching scenes that happily go for tender scenes without feeling the need to puncture the effective mood with misplaced gags. And I think this is why the programme is so underloved. The characters are rather oddball, but also all except Dawn French’s unhinged local are believable. Even she gets away with it because she is Dawn French, and she probably is a bit like that anyway.
Unfortunately for the programme it is in the elderly care home slot of Friday night BBC One, so either catch the signed report on Tuesday night (with the most involved signing you are likely to see outside of The Hits) or get what is currently the one decent comedy on iPlayer. It isn’t often we get comedy this good, so stop folding your clingfilm and give it a spin.