Farewell to This Country, a modern-day Dickensian masterpiece
Like so many great British series, This Country is quitting while it's ahead – but Sean O’Grady hopes this is not truly the end of the road for the Mucklowes
Critics shouldn’t be fans, but in the case of This Country, I’m afraid I am something of a cultist. They say it’s all over now, but I am in denial.
I imagine that all those involved, and especially Daisy May and Charlie Cooper, the brother and sister team who created it, wanted to quit while they were winning. They’d rather go out on a high, I guess, before they have squeezed all humour out of life in the Cotswolds. It is a very British thing that, by the way – in the tradition of Fawlty Towers (only 12 editions ever made) and The Office (a few more). Never say never, but that’s probably that for the regular series.
It’s a shame, though, because this third series was the best of the run, despite the loss of “Slugs”, the Coopers’ real life friend Michael Sleggs, who died last year. Even here, and just as they did in the earlier series, the Coopers managed to extract some grim humour from the reactions of the feckless cousins Kerry (Daisy May) and Kurtan (Charlie) Mucklowe. A line of Kerry’s from an early episode to the effect that “we know he’s got his cancer bucket list but why drag us into it?” was typical – just the right raw edge to it. The humour comes from the shock of it.
It’s hard to define what made the mockumentary so good. I’ve written before that it’s Dickensian, which I meant in a good way. I hope it isn’t too pretentious.
There is that same sharp observation of our times and joyful invention of grotesque human beings. The eye for detail in the trivia of pop culture, used for garnish in the Mucklowes’ lives, is unerring – Laser Quest, Flubber, Bodger and Badger, Babestation, turkey dinosaurs, skittles vodka, warhammer... all deployed with pitch perfection.
And as with Dickens, even the choice of the names for the characters is evocative – where could the Mucklowes exist other than in the bottom of society? The same goes for even the ones referenced but who we never meet – such as Uncle Nugget, Liam “Pork Chop” Dunmore and “Bumworth”.
Some of the most comic characters are also tragic. Village bully and meerkat memorabilia collector Mandy Harris (Ashley McGuire), who is an undiagnosed psychopath. Or old Len (Trevor Cooper, uncle to Charlie and Daisy May), a curmudgeonly misanthrope with not an ounce of compassion in him, except for a bogus “bride” who he meets on Facebook. He was once banned from the church for “thieving from the harvest table and washing his bits in the font”. But you see too that the reason Len lives in a lock-up garage and is constantly ill is because he is also a chronic hoarder, a debilitating mental illness. He fights with his neighbour Arthur (David Hargreaves) about their wheelie bins, and Arthur is just as selfish and awful as Ken, but we also discover that Arthur was once in so much pain he took himself off to Dignitas. There are very dark themes explored in this show that you might more expect to see on Newsnight – rural poverty, unemployment, crime, eviction, disability, attempted suicide and death. They also crop up a bit in Dickens.
The greatest creation is Kerry’s dad, Martin Mucklowe (Paul Cooper, real life father to Daisy May and Charlie). He is sheer unadulterated evil. Here is a completely amoral bastard of a man, a vain, scheming, fantasist criminal user. Plus he’s a peeper. In the second series, when he’s trying to persuade Kerry to do some jail time for possession of (his) stolen goods, he recounts how he once ran over a deer but he could feel no empathy for the stricken creature, just as he cannot for anyone or anything. He’s happy to remark to his cronies in the Keepers Arms pub that he once played pool with Fred West: “I know he’s done some iffy things, but as a builder he was top-notch. Best in the West Country...”
His attitude to Kerry is so obscene, it is funny. After she, in a rare moment of clarity, dobbed him in for nicking the Dyson vacuum cleaners, he returns for a brief reconciliation and tells her: “I had a lot of thinking time inside... I remember when you was born. Your mother left the room to get a breath of fresh air, and I was standing over your little crib, listening to you snore and holding a pillow over your face... Not that I would have. But I could have... you know what I’m talking about.”
Kerry, for all the sympathy we feel for her naivety, has inherited some of the same unpleasant traits – happy to frame coworker Glynn for her petty thefts at the recycling centre, or get Len kicked out of his home for her benefit. Kurtan is more of an eccentric obsessive than anything (he can only eat pizza from the centre out and rejects the usual slicing convention) but also admits to being basically vindictive. He is more realistic about Martin, though, compared to Kerry, who still wants to worship him. When Martin offers to do some handiwork around the house when he moves in with Kerry and her mum, Kurtan knows full well what is going on: “The only DIY Martin is doing is drilling Sue eight inches deep into her memory foam. He’s porking her out big time. That’s why she’s so happy” (Until, that is, Kerry shops him again).
All the awful stuff is juxtaposed with the unalloyed saintliness of the Reverend Francis Seaton. Played with fine nuance by Paul Chahidi, the “boiled egg in a dog collar” has to be the foil not just to Kerry and Kurtan, who he attempts to mentor, but to all of the assorted misfits, weirdos and demons in his parish. The comedy vicar is a well-known trope, pretty much played out in generations of sitcoms, but here it enjoys its own resurrection: A telly miracle.
Given current circumstances, there won’t be many new shows like this made for some time. But all of This Country is there on BBC iPlayer, and it repays viewing time and again, such is the quality of the craftsmanship of the Coopers, of director Tom George and producer Simon Mayhew-Archer. When this is all over, they really should do us the honour of another series, though. It’s their national duty.