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"Outnumbered" - But never outclassed
on 28 August 2010
There once was a time when it appeared that American comedies such as "Roseanne", "Malcolm in the middle", plus cartoons like the Simpson's and Family Guy were essentially wiping the floor with some of the bland domestic comedy from the UK such as the rather lazy "My family". Then out of the blue came the brilliant "Outnumbered" first shown on the BBC in 2007. This series is special in so many ways, with razor sharp scripts from Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin which move away from the terrible smug cosiness of some sitcoms and emphasize the sheer dysfunctional nature of families, which is of course offset by those special moments when it all appears to make sense. Add to this the extra dimension of experimentation present in "Outnumbered" with the children using elements of improvisation and the world viewed through their own unique "lenses" and this is a show which screams quality and brilliance. Set in the West London home of the "Brockman's" we have Hugh Dennis and Claire Skinner as the overburdened father and mother who are expertly cast and both brilliantly able to strike the right note of incredulity, frustration and outright defeat. The couples household arguments about the right way to stack cups in a dishwasher or the rules of writing appointments on a calendar are mini classics in their own right. Skinner's edgy relationship with her awful new age sister Angela is joy to watch especially in the Wedding episode while Dennis's portrait of a disillusioned history teacher and emerging grumpy old man ("Oh its the bin men, it must be a leap year") is pitched perfect. The fight at the tennis match in Series 3 nearly required a defibrillator in this household we laughed so much.
As for the children all three are superb. The character of Jake (Tyger Drew-Honey) is less frenetic than the younger children but is a beautifully observed portrait of a boy moving into his teenage years raked with doubts/angst but equally a huge obsession with girls and a nice line in sarcasm. Ben (Daniel Roche) is an essentially a monster! His specialities include the use and adaptation of any domestic implement as a weapon, telling the most horrific/surreal lies, inventing hypothetical scenarios usually around who can rack up the highest body count and ripostes to die for. When warned about "crying wolf" by his mother his response is that "if you're going to talk to me about lying, there are no wolves around here. We're in London don't forget". Nothing explains his character better than the opening line of his manifesto for election to the school council which states that "you should vote for me because I can eat live worms". There are occasions when his bad behaviour approaches a level of worrying sophistication not least his cry of "strangers" when his father tries to discipline him in a gift shop on a family outing, and describing his 5 year old sister as a "lezza" and a "toss piece".
Finally there is Karen (Ramona Marquez) who is by any standards a towering comedy genius. Her spoof "toy" adaptations and staging of popular TV shows such as Pop Idol, Britain's Got Talent and Hells Kitchen are sublime. She treats her Aunty Angela with a withering contempt which always manages to stay just about on the right side of politeness such as when the Angela with her blissed out hippy morals presents Karen with a dream catcher and her contemptuous response in that floaty voice is "I had a dream about weasels eating me last night and I don't want that one again". And then there are her penetrating and endless questions which effectively destroy grown ups such as "what's a mother fudger?" and sinister statements uttered with a charm and poise that could literally melt icebergs ("Mummy said she's going to hunt you down, and kill you like dogs"). I cannot let the moment pass without mentioning the funeral oration for the mouse trapped by her mother which is one of the truly great TV moments of recent years. Let Karen speak for herself on this -
"Brethren we are gathered here in the bosom of Jesus to say goodbye to this mouse, killed before its time. We have given it cheese and bread for its journey to heaven, or at least if it goes to hell, it'll have cheese on toast....Dust to dust, for richer or for poorer, in sickness or in health, may the force be with you because your worth it. Amen and out"
If you have never seen "Outnumbered" my jealously and envy is truly boundless. Great comedy is often about recognition and it also provides consolation. At its unsentimental core "Outnumbered" manages to strike chords which resonate with the hysterical frustrations of everyday experience. In these three brilliant series and the wonderful Christmas special (look out for Karen's priceless first encounter with a Scottish accent) you will find enough comedy base metals to start a gold rush and depart this earth in sheer hysterical contentment. This is observational comedy of such sheer class and finely drawn moments that we will experience only rarely and in the words of the old cliché it's "worth the price of the license fee in its own right". Your Christmas presents worries are already over.