People Like Us

Sunday, May 20, 2001 by

How many new ways are there to satirise the suppressed longings and ritualised comforts of suburban or provincial lives? It’s a perennially popular target of television comedy but the profile of a vicar which opened John Morton’s People Like Us gained ample fresh mileage from well trodden territory.

It was the style of the programme as much as its content, which made it so entertaining. Roy Mallard is a fictional documentary-maker played by Chris Langham. Mallard provides the voice-over and interviews his subjects but never appears on-screen. The pseudo-documentaries explore aspects of contemporary British life – profiles of a mother, actor, journalist and a financial-services worker are to follow later this series. The portraits could be seen as exposés of sorts, but only by default; last Sunday’s opener employed a sometimes deceptively gentle style which cunningly served to make the resulting portrayal of loss, disappointment and delusion all the more effective. It’s as if the documentary used a kind of post-modernist whimsy in the service of social satire, but subversively, the former sharpened the latter rather than blunted it.

Much of the effectiveness of “The Vicar” was due to the uniformly excellent acting and the script’s brilliantly imaginative manipulation of language and its conventions – its unexpected twists and turns (whilst at university, Sarah was at that time “also working towards a degree of happiness”), the deadpan truisms turned into surreal banalities (“by 9.30, it’s nearly 10 o’clock”), the familiar unfamiliar (“a man in touch with his feet, both of which are on the ground”). At times it recalled Chris Morris or Alan Partridge, at other times even the highly stylised language of Martin Amis’s Money (“the world of financial money”). Perhaps such verbal inventiveness came across even more strongly on the radio series, which I’m ashamed to say I haven’t heard, but the visual elements – awkward bodily shifts and sideways glances, the wife’s accustomed empty stare perfected over 20 long years, her husband’s constant air of apology – served as a real enhancement to the spoken word.

What struck me most about the commentary was its serious tone cleverly undermined by a script which could also seem serious until even the last word in a sentence which might then be so unexpected as to make a nonsense of the whole. I found myself really having to listen carefully to what was said before realising that behind the apparent profundities of the words was something which was just absurd or meaningless (“his is one of the few professions where you’re regarded as relatively young at the age of 48, so at the age of 43 he’s regarded as young even for him”). Sometimes a choice line would be delivered almost like an afterthought as a scene was fading out, making it all the funnier for its air of overheard throwaway casualness.

No one scene outstayed its welcome. The sequence with a would-be husband rehearsing his marriage vows perhaps came closest, but when Roy Mallard became embroiled in the confusion the result was not merely farcical but also served to comically highlight the tensions around his role as observer-participant.

Just the right restrained tone was preserved throughout. I had wondered if the vicar’s wife might throw a fit at the ’70s disco, perhaps hurling a plate of fish paste sandwiches at her insipid husband, but thankfully subtlety prevailed over any such obvious hysteria. I liked the use of olives as a symbol of the sensuality she so much craved in her marriage – Mediterranean and ever so slightly aspirational; it made a change from the ubiquitous gypsy creams, that almost iconic comfort to the oppressed in your archetypal Victoria Wood sketch. The vicar’s wife’s air of quiet desperation and entrapment behind years of habitual politeness was perhaps less surprising than the apparent boundlessness of her husband’s niceness. It was as if this essential niceness was all that could be left to a middle-aged vicar in a secular age. The moment of greatest insight was reserved until almost at the close of the programme – the vicar’s comment about his calling to the priesthood being just a phase he was going through at the age of 24 that he might just as well have done nothing about. This was alarming both for its frankness and the blitheness of its delivery.

Overall, this opener proved that subtlety can be the satirist’s strongest weapon.


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