Mother and Son: the great Australian sitcom is a masterclass in the art of the squabble

Garry McDonald and Ruth Cracknell are terrifically spiky and shouty in the acclaimed vintage comedy that’s still so funny, all these years later

• Mother and Son is available to stream in Australia on Stan. For more recommendations of what to stream in Australia, click here

Fans of Seinfeld understand the perverse pleasures of spending time with the Costanza family – watching these pugnacious people bicker and yell and jump down each other’s throats, turning what might have been sedate occasions into epic shouting matches. I daresay that the Beare family in Mother and Son – particularly the titular characters, brilliantly played by Ruth Cracknell and Garry McDonald – could give George and his folks a run for their money. This great Australian sitcom is so devoted to capturing their arguments that watching it feels almost like a form of assault.

Retrospectively viewed through the prism of a proto-Seinfieldian exercise in narrative minutiae, this terrifically spiky and shouty series – which ran for six seasons, between 1984 to 1994, collecting much acclaim and popularity – is in some respects more devoted to matters of inconsequence than the famous “show about nothing”. Created and written by Geoffrey Atherden, and produced and directed by Geoff Portmann, Mother and Son is more pared back than Seinfeld, with a very small cast and a huge portion of it taking place in the house where Maggie (Cracknell) and Arthur (McDonald) live.

But does Arthur really live there? I recall a moment in the first episode of the fourth season, when the show’s bitterly funny sentiment is neatly articulated. A police officer, sussing out what Arthur is up to after Maggie called the cops on him (for no good reason, of course) asks this lovable, ever-pressed upon character: “You live at home with your mother, do you sir?” To which Arthur responds: “I wouldn’t call it living.”

Ruth Cracknell (centre), Garry MacDonald (left) and Henry SZeps in Mother and Son.
Ruth Cracknell (centre) as Maggie, Garry MacDonald as Arthur (left) and Henry Szeps as Robert in Mother and Son. Photograph: ABC

The core reason for Arthur’s non-liveable existence is indeed Maggie. She is one hell of a piece of work, which might sound a little mean – unless you’ve spent time with her. A central tension of the show concerns the question of whether, and to what extent, the ageing Maggie is being manipulative or experiencing senility.

This is established from the outset, when Maggie in the first episode walks around with a bowl of milk looking for her cat, only for Arthur to inform her it is dead: “Dad backed the car over it.” Aghast, she breathlessly retorts: “Your father died years ago!” To which Arthur responds: “I know, but before he did he ran over the cat.”

This tense and pointless conversation is followed by another tense and pointless conversation, with Maggie distracting Arthur by reciting Banjo Paterson’s classic poem The Man from Snowy River (“There was movement at the station …”). Her son calls her out, offering an important observation: “Every time someone wants to talk to you about something serious, you pretend to be vague.”

The point is often made that Maggie really is losing her marbles, including through visual gags such as her vacuuming the front lawn (season six) and spraying deodorant on flowers (season two). But often the humour manifests in Maggie’s manipulative genius. In the first episode of the third season, for instance, she attempts to put the kibosh on a party poor old Arthur has planned, erecting a sign on the front lawn reading “PARTY CANCELLED, DEATH IN THE FAMILY”.

Arthur, a journalist, is the kind of bloke people used to call a “sensitive new age guy” – who lives with his mother, does all the cooking and cleaning and is sometimes mistaken for being gay. As is often the case in real life, particularly for full-time carers, time has recast the pair’s roles: while Arthur still calls Maggie “Mum” he is now the parent figure, dealing with an irascible “child” always determined to get her way through any means possible.

Mother and Son starring Ruth Cracknell and Garry MacDonald.
The core reason for Arthur’s non-liveable existence is his mother, Maggie. Photograph: ABC

Occasionally – very occasionally – the gods of adversity show Arthur some mercy, but it’s always hard fought and he’s always the underdog. Unlike George Costanza, we feel for him and want him to catch a break. Sympathy certainly never comes from his older brother Robert, a selfish and egocentric dentist played in the perfect “love to hate” key by Henri Szeps; Judy Morris is also great (such a good cast!) as Robert’s caustic wife, Liz.

The script pushes the actors into full throttle, straight-for-the-jugular mode, with a flow of very skilfully written dialogue that has real bite, real edge, real oomph. Underneath their rancour-filled interactions, broader points are made about the curse of family: not just how we can’t pick ’em, but how most, maybe all of us, feel forced into certain roles defined since a young age. The harsh parent; the caring younger sibling; the lefty with a social conscience; the staid conservative; etc. Are our entire lives forms of typecasting?

These themes and ideas will never age. Nor will the timeless art – for want of a better word – of the squabble, the quarrel, the beef, the bicker. There’s so much arguing in Mother and Son. And, all these years later, it’s still so good.

Contributor

Luke Buckmaster

The GuardianTramp

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