Archives for posts with tag: Helen Monks

One of the iconic programmes in British comedy history is Blackadder. It had an unusual concept for a comedy, in that it was set in a bygone era of English history, a different one for each series, with central figure being a distant descendent of the previous central character. Each time the figure of Blackadder fell slightly down the social ladder, from prince to courtier to servant to mid-ranking army officer.

What was so good about it was that it delivered such brilliant satire. Not only did it skewer the times it was set in, but it also mocked the modern world as well. It also skewered major figures of the era, my favourite being Elizabeth I being written as a petulant sociopath. No doubt many would argue this perhaps wasn’t too far from the truth.

There have long been rumours of a fifth series, but to no avail. Instead, its creator, Ben Elton, has written Upstart Crow, a comedy satirising the life and works of Shakespeare. It shares that skewering of historical figures, not least Shakespeare himself, as well as the modern myths that we have created around him. We are introduced to a man who leads a fairly normal family life, who don’t quite get his apparent genius.

Yet despite this, I struggle to actually laugh at this show. I think part of the problem is that, having got so used to watching comedies that are understated and about the subtleties of life, watching something where the jokes are more in plain sight requires a gear change that I cannot manage.

I quickly here want to add a note about the use of live audience laughter – some people thinks this kills comedy dead, but I disagree. Graham Linehan uses it in his comedies, and they don’t detract from anything there. Rather, it is the heavy-handedness of Elton’s writing in Upstart Crow that is to blame.

For example, Helen Monks plays Susannah, Shakespeare’s teenage daughter. This could have been handled any number of ways, but instead we have the well-worn trope of the sulky teenager. You would have thought that after Kevin and Perry, this characterisation would have died a death. It feels like a waste of Monks’ talent, certainly in comparison to her role as Germaine on Raised by Wolves.

There are some bits I like. The occasional joke lands quite well. There was a particularly good recurring one in episode two revolving around where are you supposed to put the coconuts down a woman’s vest if she already has breasts. But they are few and far between. Couple this with a feeling that everything is being slightly overdone in terms of the acting, and you have something that lacks any cohesion.

Despite this, there seems to be some love for it amongst the critics. Maybe if I accept it for what it is, I will enjoy the ride more. Still, I can’t help but feel this is an opportunity missed.

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My joy has been unconfined this past couple of weeks, as Raised by Wolves has returned to our screens. I have made no secret in the past of my love for Caitlin Moran, and this show is just another string to what must be modern media’s most ample bow.

Even without Moran’s name attached though, I would still adore it. For me, this is one of the freshest comedies around, not least because it deals with so many contemporary issues. Take, for example, the most recent episode, where the family nearly lost their home due to the private landlord wanting to cash in on the rise in house prices and sell up. A combination of razor sharp wit and some deliciously low-key acting undercut the melodrama nicely. This isn’t some sitcom about cushy suburbia. This is about a family living on the breadline and the black humour you need to develop to survive it.

The show being so female driven is another plus for me. Even in this age of the most recent wave of feminism, it still feels like many comedies reduce female characters to where they are in their reproductive cycle. For instance, mum Della in another sitcom would be put-upon but still angelic. She is, after all, a mother. In Wolves though, Della is more than that. She is a battler. She is shrewd and streetwise. She has a difficult relationship with her mother so has no maternal figure of her own to guide her. But, most excitingly, she still has passions. She goes on dates and gloriously is able to switch off the ‘mum’ switch in her brain.

Then there’s eldest daughter Germaine, who is revelling in her newfound sexual powers, albeit ones that are still not finely tuned. Her ‘sexy’ dancing with a library book on STD’s is a sight to behold. In fact, there are few shows out there that allow women to be overtly aware of their sexual prowess. It’s as if most sitcoms exist in some Victorian world, where women are mothers or maids. Wolves is a beautiful antidote to this. Where else would you have dialogue where mother and daughter discuss sexual interests? “Andrew Marr on a bike?” Della queries. “Oh that’s Yoko, turns out she is quite niche sexually” calmly responds Germaine.

In an age where we terrifyingly have manninists screeching about losing 1% of their power to women and pop culture not sure whether to liberate women or sexualise them, it is good to have at least one corner where women can be women. Filthy, funny, tough, sexually empowered and emotionally robust women. Bravo to the Moran’s for creating this show, but equally bravo to the cast for bringing them to life.

I’m going to begin this blog post with a confession: I am a massive Caitlin Moran fan-boy. I love her columns, her books and her twitter feed. I find her funny, erudite, and honest. I often wonder how many of her fellow columnists really understand working-class/benefits culture in this country. Moran has lived it in a way they often haven’t. Criticisms of her sting me, no matter how well-founded.

So it was natural that I would leap upon her sitcom Raised by Wolves, co-written with her sister Caroline. It is semi-autobiographical, focusing on two teenage sisters growing up in Wolverhampton under the gaze of a single mum and four younger siblings. A lot of sitcoms have done adolescence through the eyes of boys, but this time it is the turn of the girls to tell the story.

Unsurprisingly, I loved it. However, I would like to think I would have loved it even if I wasn’t already au fait with the Moran’s. More than anything, this is because the characters are brilliantly drawn. The contrast between Germaine (a reimagined Caitlin), who is all fantasies and bubbling hormones, and the introverted yet practical Aretha (Caroline) is well-played. There was a fantastic piece of whip-smart dialogue between the two sisters after they came across a randy horse, with Germaine imagining ‘If I had sex with a horse, I would have a baby centaur.’, before Aretha punctured the daydream with the brutal truth: ‘If you had sex with a horse, you would have a criminal record and a damaged reproductive system’. Helen Monks and Alex Davis play their roles perfectly, even if Germaine is slightly harder to sympathise with. Or maybe, like Aretha, I have spent a lot of time cleaning up other people’s impulsive messes too.

The scene stealer though is Rebekah Stanton as the fearsome but loving matriarch of the family. Too often mums are meant to be there only to keep the rest of the family on track, eye-rolling their way through family misfortunes. Not in this show. Della is both protective of her family without being a drudge. It is hard to choose between her approach to bullies and her forthright advice on dealing with periods as to what was her crowning glory in the first episode, but if she is based on the Moran’s real mum you can see how she managed to create two independent-minded but good-hearted daughters.

In short, you will be getting no apologies from me for praising Raised by Wolves. Fan-boy or not, it really is every bit as smartly observed as you would expect it to be and more. I think it is fair to say that Moran’s fan base will grow even more now.