Mum: A TV show celebrating middle-aged women

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‘Every week, Cathy (Lesley Manville) has the perfect response to all slights: she’s nicer than everyone and tries to gently guide those capable of redemption into being better people.’ Photograph: BBC/Big Talk Productions/Mark Johnson

Such a brilliant show. The entire cast is wonderful and the writing is magnificent.

Mum, to me, is sort of a ‘female’ version of the equally wonderful Detectorists.

Both feature lead characters who are real adults, both getting on in years, both trying to find out if they can rediscover their place in the world.

Sometimes they win, sometimes they lose.

But they never stop trying. Because that is what we do. JP

27 March 2018 | | The Guardian

Original title: Mum is that rare thing: a TV show celebrating a middle-aged woman

“How rare it is to see a middle-aged woman as the protagonist of a television programme – so no wonder the BBC Two sitcom Mum has hit such a nerve. The script and plot put their finger on the way society treats aging women: little identity other than how they relate to family, their sole purpose in life being to administer to everyone.

The central character, Cathy, is the Mum of the title: that is what she is, and that is what she does. This perfectly judged, slow-burn comedy is gentle yet simultaneously cringe-inducing. Cathy, played by Lesley Manville, has lost her husband – and the show documents her life after his death, one month at a time.

Her son, Jason (Sam Swainsbury), is tactless and self-absorbed, while his girlfriend, Kelly (Lisa McGrillis), is also monumentally self-centred – but I suspect no worse than any of us were as young people: they imagine that when they move out, coming around for their tea every day will be an act of charity for silly, lonely old Cathy.

Every character, from her damaged in-laws and crass, witless brother (Ross Boatman) simply assume Cathy’s duty is to (literally) serve them. And they never ask if that’s OK; in fact, it’s as if they imagine they are doing her a favour.

A recurring theme is the assumption by everyone (except family friend Michael, played by Peter Mullan) that a woman such as Cathy must surely be sad, lonely and dim, yet ready to wait on them – a spot-on assessment of society’s treatment of women over 50. But Cathy is never downtrodden, no matter how put-upon she is.

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It is encouraging to see a woman of Cathy’s vintage, played by 62-year-old Manville, in a lead role, guiding the story, central to the plot, not as the victim of events or simply the butt of gags. She is so much more than that.

Every week Cathy has the perfect response to all slights: she’s nicer than everyone and tries to gently guide those capable of redemption, Kelly especially, into being better people (or at least, slightly less annoying).

Remember when, like Kelly and Jason, you honestly believed 40 meant imminent senility? The serenely moving, snail’s-pace romance between Cathy and Michael is wonderful – thwarted each week by reticence, clumsy interruptions and tactlessness.

The couple have been going on not-dates to a garden centre (which can act as nightclubs for the lovelorn middle-aged) but have never bought those promised chairs.

 

The characters around her can be so completely awful that the thought of Cathy walking out is ever-present. Each week I watch, always wondering at which point she will lose it completely and order them all to get out of the house and give her some peace. Yet she never does. Mum never does that, does she?

Mum is strong on the crushing reality of family life: relatives are truly horrible, but redemption is seen in the way Cathy cares for vulnerable Kelly, such as when she encourages her surrogate daughter to eat properly rather than misguidedly attempt a raw food diet; or when she defends her against Kelly’s own callous mother.

Mum is brilliant, but I watch while cringing. Her cruel father-in-law (Karl Johnson) seems terrible and demanding, until we are gently reminded that he, too, is grieving for his son, and seemingly in the early stages of dementia.

There are no gags, nor any pratfalls, other than Kelly’s weekly habit of blithely smashing a treasured object or an entire litre of milk, an action signalled and anticipated. She also packs “lucky” stones in her luggage.

It’s billed as comedy, but I rarely laugh out loud. Mum is nonetheless beautiful in presenting a realistic, sympathetic middle-aged woman, so rare in our entertainment landscape.

It’ll be back for a third series, and mercifully each episode ends with the perfect riposte to cruelties so smugly inflicted on Cathy. The theme tune by Lulu and the Lampshades features the refrain: “You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone”.

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