Screenwriters often say their characters are inspired by people they’ve met in real life. If that’s the case for Stefan Golaszewski, he’d better hope that none of them ever watch his shows and recognise themselves. That’s hardly a risk of course. Golaszewski’s best—and by best, I mean worst—comic creations are so lacking in self-awareness they’d never notice the similarities.
Take Laura, the bigoted, self-involved sister of lazy but harmless Becky in Him & Her. You won’t meet a meaner, more judgemental, less-informed person this side of a Daily Mail comments section. She’s a self-obsessed, cruel bully. And the highlight of the show.
In Him & Her’s final series, six episodes of which chronicle the events of Laura’s disastrous wedding, you begin to understand her, sympathise even. Kerry Howard’s astounding performance—she deserves to be cast in everything—has a lot to do with it, but revealing the humanising chinks in monstrous characters’ facades is emerging as a Golaszewski trait.
It happens twice in new series, Mum. In the space of one episode we see the brash, braying mother (Tanya Franks) of a young woman so insecure she makes Alvy Singer look well-adjusted, realise that the continual knocks and jibes she gives her daughter aren’t water off a duck’s back, and try to make amends. It’s a surprisingly moving moment from a character we’ve known so short a time.
It takes slightly longer to see the deep hurt and fear beneath Mum’s real monster: Pauline (Dorothy Atkinson). A boastful, materialistic social climber brought low by separation from her wealthy cheating husband, Pauline’s the sort of exaggeratedly nasty woman the brilliant Julia Davis might write for herself to play. Would Davis though, one of the most misanthropic writers in comedy, have included the moment in which Pauline reveals the vulnerability beneath all the competitive boasts? Golaszewski does, and Mum is all the richer for it.
Pauline never admits out loud that she’s terrified of being cheated on again. A bittersweet portrait of the efforts people make to present a smiling (or in Pauline’s case, sneering) face to the world, nobody says what they’re really feeling in Mum.
That we still know and feel for them proves the light touch of the writing and the talent of the cast, which is spot-on. Lisa McGrillis (Hebburn, Inspector George Gently) is a real find as clueless, irritating but golden-hearted Kelly, the girlfriend of Sam Swainsbury’s gormless Jason. A spectacularly dim motor-mouth, at first Kelly seems to be solely an object of mockery. Quickly though, her intense, unhinged vulnerability shows through.
The story’s titular mum, Lesley Manville’s Cathy, is the one who sees it. There’s a recurring joke with the show’s bit-part character, Debs (a woman so dense she makes Kelly look like Frasier Crane) who calls herself an “observer. I observe the world. It’s a gift”.
Cathy really is an observer. She patiently and good-humouredly puts up with a houseful of idiots, smiling her way through a baffling amount of provocation. She’s the one who gently but firmly suggests that the hurtful mother should stop ribbing her poor daughter, she’s the one who immediately picks up on the hurt under Pauline’s superiority complex and offers her kindness and support.
One reason Cathy is so well attuned to noticing other people in pain is that she’s suffering tremendously herself. Not that she’d ever tell you. Mum’s six episodes cover the first year since the death of Cathy’s husband from the day of his January funeral to the following New Year’s Eve. Cathy grieves like so many do, inwardly and pragmatically, keeping things going and herself together for the sake of the people around her. Even if they are, to a one, ridiculous.
Well, not quite to a one. This is where Mum becomes a bit of a romantic fairy tale. Peter Mullan plays Michael, an old pal and the best man at Cathy and her husband’s wedding. Now divorced, Michael steps in to help Cathy through her loss, firstly because he’s nice and secondly because he’s clearly besotted with her, an open secret that true to form, is barely spoken out loud across the six episodes.
In Golaszewski terms, Michael is the Steve to Cathy’s Becky, someone with the same wry sense of humour who sees how testing everyone around her is and shares Cathy’s ironic tolerance of them all. As a long-time family friend, he shares Cathy’s memories of life before marriage and children, something cruelly lost when a spouse dies. He’s also grieving for his best friend, and Peter Mullan handles the push-and-pull of his adoration, timidity, grief and loneliness beautifully.
Every bit as beautiful is Manville’s subtle performance. It’s a quiet triumph, made all the more affecting by its attention to small detail next to the exaggerated portraits of those around her. Her in-laws are entertainingly awful, the worst caricatures of old, hateful intolerance. Son Jason is a good soul but is emotionally tone-deaf and unaware that his plans to emigrate to Australia would break his girlfriend and mum’s heart. Not that they’d ever tell him.
The whole thing, a combination of subtle emotion and cartoony exaggerations, works. It’s very funny, very affecting and reveals real insight into the ways humans cover up pain with brashness, silence, laughter or a smile.
This article originally appeared in June 2016.
Mum returns for a second series on BBC Two on Tuesday the 20th of February 2018 at 10pm.