I don’t often do a straightforward review of a tv series, but I’ve just spent the last week watching the sixteen precious episodes which make up the entire run of the sitcom series, dinnerladies, and I feel the need to express my opinions.
Victoria Wood – creator, sole writer, theme song composer and star of dinnerladies. Overachieve much?
First of all, how was I unaware of Victoria Wood for such a long time? She’s done just about everything a comedic creative-type person can and then some. She even performs her own humorous songs in her live shows. I’m doubly surprised she’s never been on my radar since I’ve been a fan of Julie Walters for years but never saw any of their many collaborations.
dinnerladies takes place in a factory canteen in Northern England. The heart of the show is deputy catering manager, Brenda Furlong (played by Wood). Bren is dependable, motherly and the slightly frazzled voice of reason among her co-workers. While she has an extensive knowledge of films, her vocabulary choices tend to get a little muddled. Maybe it’s best I just introduce you to her this way:
Besides the fact that it’s a funny program which, in a perfect world, all sitcoms should be, here are the reasons I was so taken with this series:
1. It has a top-notch ensemble.
Ah, those floral overall uniforms…
The dinnerladies themselves – bickering, middle-aged pals Dolly and Jean; dim but sweet Anita; and less-than-hardworking smart mouth, Twinkle are the core cast members, of course. However every recurring character gets a chance to step forward and be a part of the canteen’s colorful world. Phillipa, the well-intentioned human resources director, is always a bit too disorganized to really be of any help. Handyman Stan, that oft declared son of a desert rat, is fiercely dedicated to flexible parking, toaster repair and his friends. Tony, the catering manager, is in the unenviable position of being the lone male in a kitchen full of female hormones. I suspect the only thing that keeps him coming in to work is his feelings for his deputy. Even Norman, the bread delivery man has a back story; he’s agoraphobic which apparently resulted from falling off a diving board in Guernsey.
And then there’s scene stealer, Petula Gordino…
Bren’s nymphomanic mother, Petula, played by Julie Walters, only three years Victoria Wood’s senior.
Bren’s mother is a surreal character who habitually blows into the canteen unannounced spouting delusional stories of her connections to celebrities and her high-flying lifestyle. For example, “As Gerard Depardieu said to me that day in Douville, ‘What’s the point in having a big nose if you can’t jam a banana up it?'” Of course the life in Petula’s mind is in sharp contrast to her obvious bag lady existence, living in a caravan and constantly pestering Bren for money and other favors.
2. It’s touching
Despite the overall witty writing and humorously flawed characters, serious topics are broached. As the series progresses, we find that, despite her outwardly pleasant and positive attitude, Bren has had a difficult life. Her mother abandoned her at a young age leaving her to be raised in care. Throughout much of the series, Tony is battling cancer. Several characters lose a parent. Other somber topics include company downsizing, divorce, domestic violence and unintended pregnancy. Don’t get me wrong, humor is at the forefront of dinnerladies but these real problems let the audience in on a tender side to characters who might otherwise be seen as caricatures.
3. It has a great love story to root for
Bren and Tony fancy one another but seem to be constantly dancing around the subject. He treats her like a mate so when he actually suggests going out, she doesn’t know that he’s sincere. On the other hand, Bren, whom everyone else goes to for advice, lacks the confidence or self-esteem to undertake a romantic relationship head on. There are many false starts between these two and when I was on the verge of giving up hope, Ms. Wood allowed her characters a bit of happiness. It takes a talented writer to know how far to push your audience in order to get the most satisfaction from a storyline yet not drive them away…and I was just about there, Victoria.
4. It really made me pay attention
I normally make a habit of turning on subtitles whenever they’re available. It helps verify that I am following the flow of conversation and catching any slang terms of which I may still be ignorant. With dinnerladies, I had to watch series one on YouTube and series 2 on a region 2 dvd set, neither of which had closed captions. This show takes place in the Manchester area, setting of many a quality English tv program, so my ear is attuned to the variations of this regional accent. Nonetheless, I found I had to listen very closely to Twinkle and, at times Bren, in order to catch what they were saying.
In addition, a majority of the jokes from this series rely on pop culture references. While I try to keep on top of these things, I still don’t know every game show presenter, news personality and variety performer that lives in the psyche of UK audiences. For a small country, they sure have a large proportion of famous people. Maybe if I subscribed to the Daily Mail I’d be more up-to-date on my minor British celebrities.
Typical Daily Mail front page; however I already knew who Lenny Henry and Dawn French were.
But instead of letting these dialect and cultural differences put me off, I took them as a challenge. Google, my remote control rewind button and all my powers of concentration kept me in good stead and I’m glad I stuck with the show because I really believe it’s an example of the best in British comedy telly.
In case you didn’t pick up on my enthusiasm, I would give dinnerladies two thumbs up, 5 stars and fresh tomatoes. In other words, I thought it was good.
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