Next of Kin – Simply Media DVD Review

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Maggie (Penelope Keith) and Andrew (William Gaunt) are on the verge of a new life.  Following Andrew’s retirement, the pair plan to sell their house in England and move to a quiet village in France.  As they sit in the French sunshine, finalising their plans, talk turns to who they’ll invite over.  Both are adamant that Graham and his wife (unflatteringly known as Bootface) should definitely both be persona non grata.  The clear inference is that Graham’s a boring friend who they’re keen to jettison, but shortly afterwards it’s revealed that he’s their only son.

Returning home to England, they learn that Graham and his wife have been killed in a car crash, which leaves Maggie and Andrew with the difficult task of caring for their three grandchildren – Georgia (Ann Gosling), Philip (Mathew Clarke) and Jake (Jamie Lucraft).

What’s striking about the opening episode of Next of Kin is just how unsympathetic both Maggie and Andrew are (especially Maggie).  Even after the news of Graham’s death has sunk in, Maggie is unable to express any grief at all.  As she tells her housekeeper Liz (Tracie Bennett), she had very little time for her son.  Packed off to boarding school at the earliest opportunity, it’s plain that no mother/son bond (or indeed father/son) bond was ever developed.  Even as an adult, things didn’t improve as she regarded him as a pompous, priggish bore.  The last time they saw Graham was five years ago, after Bootface told her on Christmas Day that she didn’t want her to smoke in the house.  That was enough for them to decide they never wanted to see their son and the rest of his family again.  It’s another of those moments that highlights just how selfish and self-centered Maggie and Andrew are (although dramatically there had to be a reason why they hadn’t seen the children for a while – had they been regular visitors it would have dulled the culture-shock of their arrival)

Penelope Keith was no stranger to playing unsympathetic characters – both Margo Leadbetter and Audrey fforbes-Hamilton were self-centered snobs, so Maggie bears some similarities to her two most famous comic roles.  To begin with, Maggie is violently opposed to acting as a surrogate parent, she made a hash of parenting the first time so why should she have to go through it again?  But as part of the series’ theme is redemption (had they all spent three series sniping at each other things would have become very tedious) there’s obvious dramatic potential in watching how Maggie and Andrew slowly get to know and love their grandchildren.  It’s interesting listening to the studio audience during the scenes where Maggie professes she had no love for her son though, unsurprisingly they’re quite subdued.

William Gaunt, previously the harassed nominal head of the house in No Place Like Home, has a similar role to play here.  If Maggie is uptight, then Andrew is relaxed (he’s quite sanguine about taking care of their grandchildren, seeing it as their duty).

As for the kids themselves, Jake is the youngest (seven), his brother Philip is a couple of years older whilst big sister Georgia is in her early teens.  Georgia is initially presented as the most hostile to their new surroundings – she’s the archetypical stroppy teenager with a host of politically correct views inherited from her parents.  All three children (including young Jake) are shown to have picked up character traits from their parents (he still enjoys a bedtime story, but wants Maggie to continue the tale of the whale stranded in a sea of oil – a victim of human greed and corruption).

Liz is on hand to dispense the occasional nugget of wisdom (gleaned from various television and radio phone in shows) whilst battling off the advances of Tom the builder (Mark Powley – probably best known as Ken Melvin from The Bill).  Real life couple Wanda Ventham and Timothy Carlton pop up occasionally as Maggie and Andrew’s best friends Rosie and Hugh.  The four spent many happy holidays abroad together, although Rosie and Hugh now serve as a reminder to Maggie and Andrew that their days of freedom have passed – it’ll be a long time before they can simply decide to leave for a holiday on a whim.

As a family based sitcom, Next of Kin probably slightly suffered from the fact that 2.4 Children was running at the same time.  2.4 Children had a deft blend of parenting topics and surrealistic humour and enjoyed a very long run (possibly only curtailed by the death of Gary Olsen).  Although Next of Kin lasted for three years (an indicator that twenty years ago the schedulers were quite generous – today a middling sitcom would be lucky to get a second series) this wasn’t long enough to show the children developing into young adults – although they still managed to cover a fair amount of ground during the three series.

It may not offer belly laughs, but the combination of Penelope Keith and William Gaunt (especially Gaunt, who’s always worth watching in both comedy and drama) and the three young leads is an attractive one and Jan Etherington and Gavin Petrie’s scripts are quite sharp in places.  It’s never going to be acclaimed as a lost classic, but it does seem slightly unfair that it seems to have disappeared from the public’s consciousness quite so comprehensively.

Next of Kin – The Complete Collection contains all twenty two episodes (seven for both series one and two, eight for series three) across six discs (two discs per series).   Picture quality is fine, although I did notice some sound issues.  Occasionally the sound is rather tinny and there’s brief moments where the soundtrack has an odd, phasing tone.  It never renders the dialogue inaudible, but the changes in the quality of the soundtrack are quite detectable.  Having spoken to Simply they confirm this was a problem outside of their control – hence the disclaimer on the start-up screens. It’s probably something that some people will notice more than others, but it didn’t really detract from my enjoyment of the series.

Next of Kin is released by Simply Media on the 25th of April 2016.  RRP £39.99.

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The Good Life – Plough Your Own Furrow

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By 1975 John Esmonde and Bob Larby were a well-established writing team (responsible for hit series such as Please Sir!).  When creating The Good Life they started with pretty much a blank slate – they knew that Richard Briers would star (since the BBC were keen to have Briers appear in another sitcom) but everything else was up for grabs.

The first moment of inspiration came when Esmonde and Larby realised that both Briers and Larby were coming up to the age of forty – as Larby said, it was one of those “Oh God!” ages.  So it was decided that Briers’ character would be facing some mid-life crisis, but what form would this take?

Thoughts such as his character deciding to resign his job and sail around the world or live on a desert island were kicked around (though not terribly seriously) before they hit upon the idea of a man totally fed up with his job and the whole rat-race existence.  So he decides to “drop out” and become self sufficient.  This was a decent idea and the logical move would have been for him to sell his house and buy a place in the country.

But in a stroke of genius, Esmonde and Larby decided that Briers’ character (Tom Good) would do no such thing – instead his house and garden (in the middle of Surbiton) would be turned into a mini-farm, complete with animals, vegetables and all the other paraphernalia that it entailed.

With this initial concept decided, the rest of the small cast fell into place.  Felicity Kendall was Barbara, Tom’s long-suffering wife whilst Penelope Keith and Paul Eddington would be the Good’s long suffering next-door neighbours, Margo and Jerry.

Larby conceded that had Margo and Jerry simply been relentlessly disapproving then the series wouldn’t have worked very well.  Margo and Jerry are Tom and Barbara’s best friends and it’s the conflict between their friendship and their disapproval of the Good’s new lifestyle which drives some of the comedy along.

The first episode, Plough Your Own Furrow, is an interesting one.  It’s not wall-to-wall laughs, as there’s space when the characters (especially Tom) pause to reflect upon the course of their life so far.  Partly this may be because it was the first episode of a new series – as time went on, the audiences would become more attuned to the characters, the writing and the style of the programme and be more inclined to show their approval.

As the episode opens, we see Tom celebrating his 40th birthday.  He’s clearly a man searching for something which is, at that time, undefinable.

It’s quality of life.  That’s what I’m after.  If I could just get it right.  I’ll tackle it and get it right, as soon as I know what it is.

It’s clear that he isn’t getting any job satisfaction.   A whole host of small irritations are highlighted – such as the office car-park attendant knowing Jerry’s name, but not Tom’s (“I’ve really made an impact with you over the years, haven’t I?  Cor blimey, I’ve only been here eight years.”) and the fact there was an office cricket team but nobody thought to ask him (“We didn’t need to.  We got my dad to umpire”).

This is another indication that Tom is standing still at best or even moving backwards.  Everybody else in his department is in their twenties, so what does the future hold for Tom?  Jerry joined the company at the same time as Tom, but he’s ascended to the executive level whilst Tom remains stuck on the fourth floor, engaged in vital work such as designing a toy hippo to be included as a free gift in a popular brand of breakfast cereal.

Jerry spells it out to Tom.

We joined this company – what, eight years ago, wasn’t it it?  And do you know something?  I was frightened of you then.  You were a better draughtsman than I was and you had better qualifications than mine.  I was going to have to rely on pure cunning just to keep up with you.  Still, I needn’t have bothered, need I?  Cos look at us.  I’m up here and you’re down there, not getting picked for cricket teams.  And why?  Because you use about one tenth of your ability.  I have to use all mine and what I lack I make up with sheer, bloody crawling.

Then Sir (Reginald Marsh) joins Tom and Jerry (and every time I type their names I assume that Esmonde and Larby picked those names as a tribute to a popular cat and mouse partnership) for a chat about his latest top-secret project.

The bubble has just come off the top of the think-tank and I don’t mind telling you that this is an absolute blockbuster of an idea.  It’s going to put our wildlife preservation series in the vanguard of world mouldings.  Our mould is going to be a giraffe! And Tom, I’m thinking of putting this giraffe on your plate.

Tom has the chance to advance his career with some “bloody crawling” but his hysterical laughter at the giraffe news scuppers this.  This is point when Tom finally realises the futility of his job (“You should have heard Sir.  You’d think he’d invented penicillin.  I couldn’t help laughing”).  There has to be more to life, but what?  Then Tom has a lightbulb moment, which he explains to Barbara.

I quit work and we become as damned near self-sufficient as possible.  We’ve got bags of garden, we grown our own food.  We keep some animals, chickens, a pig.  We produce our own energy, recycle rubbish.  We design the things we need.  I’ll show you what being a draughtsman is really all about.  Now , some things we can’t make, right.  Some things we can’t grow, right.  So we flog our surplus and buy stuff, and that’s without good old Medieval barter.  It’ll be damned hard work.  We won’t have much in the way of mod cons, but we might enjoy discovering what we can do without.  And we won’t need the world and his wife to give us the yea or nay.  It’ll be just us, doing it for us.  What do you think, eh?

This monologue is the essence of the series.  And Barbara’s reaction is interesting.  The camera cuts back to her on several occasions and her expression is, at best, neutral.  It would have been incredibly unrealistic for her to instantly agree, so even though it’s the middle of the night she puts on her wellies and walks up and down the garden until she finally decides that yes, they’ll do it.

This naturally results in a celebration – and as they dance in the fishpond the noise wakes up the Ledbetters next door.  We see Jerry, but only hear Margo (in this episode we don’t see Penelope Keith).  And the next morning Tom has been up good and early.  He’s sold his car and bought a plough, so he can start on the back garden and take the first step on the road to self-sufficiency.