Everyday life may be full of funny moments, but it’s fair to say that most of them aren’t found during the commute to work; traffic jams, roadworks and incompetent drivers raise stress levels like little else. The prospect of watching two people make small talk in a confined space as inane radio jingles play gooseberry in the background doesn’t sound like a promising start for a comedy series. Yet somehow, Peter Kay’s Car Share won a huge audience for its first series on BBC One back in 2015. After a dramatic ending to its second run this week, fans were desperate to learn what would become of star-crossed couple John and Kayleigh’s burgeoning romance, only to have those hopes dashed when star, co-writer and director Peter Kay confirmed that no more episodes are planned.
It’s a real blow, as Car Share’s proved to be one of the most consistently funny, perceptive and sweet shows of recent years. The original idea, pitched to Kay by co-writers Paul Coleman and Tim Reid, featured a pair of twentysomethings thrown together by a work car-sharing scheme. By the time the series made it to the screen, John (Kay) and Kayleigh (Siân Gibson, also a writer on the show) were a decade older, if no wiser, a change that lends a certain pathos to the glimpses of their lives revealed by their conversations on the daily trek to the supermarket at which they both work. John’s the assistant manager: a bit pompous, proudly set in his ways, and with a heart of gold beneath his blunt disdain for much of modern life. Kayleigh, by contrast, is a garrulous sales rep, a loveable eternal optimist whose enthusiasm for Steps, Dirty Dancing and Beyoncé jars with everything John stands for. They are, of course, perfect for each other in every way. Watching this bittersweet love story unfold as the two work through their initial clashes is the main draw of Car Share, but the decision to prioritise absurdist humour over sentimentality only increases the show’s emotional heft.
It’s been ten years since Kay’s last appearance in a sitcom, and he’s now so much a part of the arena-packing mainstream that it’s all too easy to forget what masterpieces of edgy, observational comedy his early shows were. That Peter Kay Thing took an affectionate swipe at everyday life in its sharply observed vignettes, blending the wry detachment drawn from Kay’s passion for Seinfeld with a gleeful wackiness that found its full realisation in two series of Phoenix Nights. Kay’s morose club owner, Brian Potter – first seen, along with his right-hand-man, Jerry ‘The Saint’ St Clair (Dave Spikey) in an episode of That Peter Kay Thing – proclaimed that clubland would never die, despite all the evidence to the contrary. A hint of melancholy beneath the slapstick and a rich seam of magnificent northern sarcasm elevated the pratfalls of the Phoenix Club’s endearing crew to classic status.
Car Share delivers all of the above, though without the bleakness that characterised some of That Peter Kay Thing’s darker moments. Kay’s natural chemistry with his old university friend Gibson makes the couple’s banter thoroughly believable. The audience’s vantage point, hovering above dashboard level, lets each fleeting expression of annoyance or affection – so often missed by the duo as one or the other of them stares out at passing scenery – register as if we’ve known them both for years. Kay’s ability to convey character with a turn of phrase or a raised eyebrow is already proven, but the revelation here is Gibson. Kayleigh could be your sister, cousin or flatmate: gossipy, warm and often hilarious, with an underlying depth of feeling that emerges in flashes of disappointment or distress. John’s disillusionment with romance following a painful break-up is contrasted with Kayleigh’s dogged determination to find The One through internet dating. Even her horror when she finds out that a potential suitor with the handle Pussy Lover doesn’t, in fact, share her enthusiasm for cats can’t deter this sunny, sweet, Christmas-obsessed woman from her goal of finding happiness. By the time series two draws to its heart-wrenching conclusion, we’re desperate to see the pair declare their buried feelings at long last.
Supporting characters on John and Kayleigh’s journey are few and far between, but the rare cameos are memorable. Reece Shearsmith and Game Of Thrones’ Conleth Hill appear as unwanted passengers, with the latter scarcely recognisable as a drunken Smurf on the way home from a rowdy fancy-dress bash, while Elbow singer Guy Garvey turns up in an appealingly down-to-earth role as Kayleigh’s sister’s motorcycle-fanatic boyfriend, Steve. Regular sightings of a hunky trolley-pusher (Danny Swarsbrick) – forever known as ‘Ted 2’ after the passing of his beloved elderly predecessor – drive Kayleigh into paroxysms of desire and John to howls of derision.
Last but not least, the soundtrack to the daily commute deserves a credit of its own. Cheesy, 80s-focused station Forever FM provides the spark for Kayleigh’s flights of fancy as she imagines herself, garbed in glitter, belting out power ballads and chirpy pop songs. These delirious moments of fantasy are perfectly judged and sit comfortably alongside muso John’s head-nodding appreciation of ‘serious’ rock and rap. Blink and you’ll miss the hilarious sight gags contained in road signs; tune out for a minute and you won’t catch the all-too-plausible radio advertisements (‘BrillingtonCollege – where brilliance is almost our name!’)
The most treasurable quality of Car Share, though, is its sheer compassion for its characters, and its recognition, conveyed with a feather-light touch, of the need for glamour and passion in every life. A love forBolton and its people runs through each episode, while the writers’ keen ear for the rhythms of local speech delivers a welcome two-finger salute to those for whom regional dialects are an object of scorn. Car Share depicts northern, working-class lives without a shred of sentiment, but with a dignity, affection and, crucially, understanding that’s rare indeed in an age of cheap jibes and wilful ignorance. With laughs as big as the heart disguised by its sharp wit, it’s a rare treat indeed.
Peter Kay’s Car Share series two is currently available on BBC iPlayer.