Guaranteed to make you cry four times every episode, the final series of the Lesley Manville sitcom miraculously turns tiny gestures into epic romance
By Jack Seale
Mum is a comedy that can be agony. When it first wiped its feet, hung up its anorak and shuffled politely on to BBC Two in 2016, at times it was perhaps too painfully funny. For a season and a half, Mum was very very good, and Lesley Manville was flawless as Cathy, a recent widow bedevilled in her nice Essex semi by her insensitive relatives. It was, however, tiptoeing awfully close to a couple of traps that can snare cringe-coms.
First, the “main character is nice, everyone else is a grotesque fool” format was a little too stark, as we wondered how the saintly Cathy could withstand a torrent of micro-aggressions from her unbelievably selfish son Jason, his incredibly stupid girlfriend Kelly (Lisa McGrillis), Cathy’s outrageously crass brother Derek (Ross Boatman) and his catastrophically snooty partner Pauline (Dorothy Atkinson). Meanwhile, the forbidden connection between Cathy and her late husband’s best pal Michael (Peter Mullan) progressed by nanometres per episode, as he repeatedly stared at her benignly instead of announcing that he’d always loved her. “Character has every opportunity to say The Thing, but never does” is another sadcom trope that risks turning sympathy into frustration: just bloody say it, we almost screamed.
Having taken us right to the limit, though, writer – and since season two, director – Stefan Golaszewski was able to bring us back. Just when the supporting characters’ infernal suburban prattle about cars, holidays and whether rice can be eaten with stew stopped distracting us and we reached breaking point, there was an emotional pay-off to make it all worthwhile. Near the end of season two, Cathy putting down her washing basket to hug Michael, or the pair slyly holding hands during a fireworks display, were tiny gestures made huge by the journey we had taken to get there – and by the craft of Golaszewski, Manville and Mullan, who have the chops to turn glances, silences and desultory chats about getting to the tip before it closes into epic romance.
In the new, third and final season – bingeable in full on iPlayer – Golaszewski shows he has known exactly what he has been doing all along. The whole clan decamps to a Kent mansion on holiday, with episodes covering consecutive days rather than taking place weeks apart as previously, to celebrate Derek’s birthday. Cathy and Michael have admitted their love to each other, but not to anyone else. In this pressured new environment, those moments of release arrive harder and faster. Before now, Mum probably made you cry once a year. Prepare for that to become three or four times an episode.
Mullan and Manville remain magnificent: he has a speech in the fifth episode to rank with the greatest romcom soliloquys, and just the way he looks at her with his happily creased eyes will put sunshine in your heart for a month. But the miracle Golaszewski performs here is in humanising his small army of monsters, giving characters who were once cartoons a heartbreaking inner life that previous seasons only hinted at. It is hard to pick an outstanding member of the ensemble: maybe it’s Boatman as simple-soul Derek, whose pathetic jokes and clumsily planned spontaneity hide an insecurity that makes him willing to accept humiliation from Pauline. Maybe it is Atkinson as Pauline, who reveals the vicious sadness that lies inside any sharp-elbowed snob; she has worked with both Mike Leigh and Victoria Wood, two poles of influence that visibly pull on Golaszewski’s scripts. At its best, Mum equals them both.
The hardest job is handed to Sam Swainsbury as Jason, who is so lazy, thick and unobservant that he has always been borderline problematic. In these new episodes, his fear of Michael usurping his late father manifests in the sort of hostility that Mum would usually have skirted around. It’s another fine line that the show barely walks back from, but – whether or not it’s plausible or redemptive – Jason is the core of what the show is really about. As well as its myriad observations about family members who didn’t choose each other; and who annoy and impede each other in a hundred unintended ways each day; and who have an inkling of what they should do to make things better but aren’t always brave or articulate enough to overcome their limitations; as well as all that, season three of Mum completes a portrait of a gang united by grief. They are terrible because they’re missing a son, a friend, a husband or, in Jason’s case, a dad.
It has been worth all the pain to work these people out. Mum might have looked like it was just a sitcom, but it had something beautiful to say about love and loss. It’s said it.