October 29, 2006
Maybe it’s the long nights and the way the leaves look falling from the trees, but television has been getting nostalgic of late. Autumn is usually a second spring for TV, when a new wave of fresh vegetation begins to appear after the summer drought, but the biggest story this season has been the sudden reappearance of fondly remembered programmes we thought had died off for good long ago, flowering briefly up again in a way that makes the surrounding shrubbery look undernourished. The recent reprisals of Cracker and Prime Suspect might not have been quite as strong as their glory days, but any weaknesses in plotting were made up for by the intense displays of deep-rooted acting, characterisation and feeling, and by the sense that this might be the last chance to see them. Who’s coming along to replace Fitz Fitzgerald and Jane Tennison? The guy Robson Greene plays in Wire in the Blood? Caroline Quentin in Blue Murder?
Now the I Love the 1990s party continues with the reappearance of The Royle Family, which pops back to say Hello, I Must Be Going with a one-off special that, if anything, hits home with a more shamelessly devastating emotional force than either of the moody dramas mentioned above.
It’s been six years since we last set foot in Jim and Barbara Royle’s house. Baby David is seven now and Denise is pregnant again, but, gloriously, not much has really changed. Certainly, Jim hasn’t changed his shirt or jeans, he never did quite get around to finishing stripping that wallpaper, and the radio still somehow always seems to be playing exactly the right song to fit the moment, whether it’s Johnny Cash or Doris Day or I Wanna Be Like You from The Jungle Book.
But there are two significant alterations to the familiar landscape of their living room. The TV set has mutated into a huge, flat screen job, as TV sets do. And behind Jim’s armchair, where the dining table used to be, now sits a bed in which, as you realise when her white-haloed head rises up over his shoulder like the ghost of Christmas past, Barbara’s mother Norma – Nana to you and me and everyone else invited in, including neighbour Cheryl’s string of one-date boyfriends – has taken up permanent residence, armed with a special magnifying lens so she can see what’s going on. She is, in case the subtitle has had you puzzled, The Queen of Sheba. Or Bloody Sheba, as Jim would have it.
How things stay the same as they change has always been the underlying theme and, along with the way it transforms your TV screen from a window into a mirror, the biggest joke of The Royle Family. What happens in Jim’s front room isn’t all that different from what happened in the front rooms he grew up in during the forties and fifties, something you sense most keenly when he loosens his tie and gets his banjo out amid the teacups and empty cans at family gatherings.
That sense of stasis is carried through into the deceptively slow pacing, the Jim Jarmusch-like tempo that, allied with the single-camera look and the pointed absence of a laughtrack, made the programme feel like a sitcom revolution when it first appeared in 1998. Unafraid to go slow, confident that what it’s showing you is worth taking time to look at. Whether this will be the last time Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash write an episode only time will tell, but the valedictory mood is strengthened by how they factor in a greatest-hits set, not only by repeating that famous wallpaper stripping routine with a spot of laminate flooring, but in stretching the slowness out to its extreme. Despite Ricky Tomlison’s ferociously committed bursts of raucous coarseness as Jim, the most hilarious gag simply involves Cash reading aloud from a book, a moment they manage to sustain for well over two minutes without anything else happening at all, and which had tears streaming down my face after 15 seconds.
And, be warned – the Royles have never been squeamish about tears, tenderness and sentiment, in the same way they’ve never been particular about what they do in their kitchen sink. Because time is wearing on, after all. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, maybe at the same time. It’s glorious. God save them. All that remains to be said is “Trevor McDonald.”