Motherland review – hellish family fun no longer seems so bad

Christmas special brings more stress for Julia and the gang, with frantic festive prep, a school nativity and Amanda’s formal party to contend with

After gleefully inflicting two series of childcare crises, playground politics and social humiliations on its middle-class mums (and Kevin), Motherland (BBC Two) knows them very well indeed. Well enough to imagine exactly what these characters, and their real-world counterparts, would be getting up to at this time of year.

Is it possible for the ever-harried Julia (Anna Maxwell Martin) to endure even more stress, without combusting like a brandy-soaked pudding? It certainly is. She had turned “frazzled” into a festive art form, juggling domestic jobs, while waiting hand-and-foot on her demanding in-laws and fielding phone calls from her useless husband (“Ah, what absolute bit of tat are you going to panic-buy me this year?”). Kevin (Paul Ready) has kids who have requested a popular multiplayer video game from Santa (“Minecraft, Kevin, not ‘Mein Kraft’. It’s not German; Hitler didn’t write it.”) And like any responsible parent, he was merrily attempting to “play it all first, to make sure there’s no misogyny or casual drug references”. Liz’s (Diane Morgan) kids were with their dad this year, so she was preparing to settle into a shitmas depression, with only a pint of advocaat for company. The perma-pissed Meg (Tanya Moodie) was enjoying all the corporate drinks parties, but dreading the eventual hangover, surrounded by her picture-perfect blended family.

Indeed, Meg already smelled “like the carpet at a Wetherspoon’s” by mid-afternoon, when the gang gathered to watch their kids’ school nativity play. Their sarky commentary was shushed by Julia’s nemesis, a perfectly turned out Amanda (Lucy Punch), then drowned out by a notably adept Silent Night guitar solo. “That’s Mr Washbourn!,” an over-excited Kevin informed them. “He used to be in the band Toploader before he became a TA … I follow him on Facebook.” (This dig at the “still got it” pretensions of ex-muso parents is well-deserved, but since Toploader’s Joseph Washbourn is cameoing as himself, it can sadly only be considered a very gentle one).

The revelry continued with a trip to the “living nativity” petting farm, (where Anne (Philippa Dunne) let slip her disturbingly deep knowledge of rabbits, and culminated at Amanda’s grand Christmas Eve party, held at her huge house, with a 30ft tree and a “strict schedule” of gifting, games and carolling. Enthusiasm levels ranged from Liz, who casually handed her hostess a half-drunk bottle of white wine on entry (my girl), to Julia who had grown manic in her desperation to escape the giblet-gravy prep. Julia’s zero-effort-maximum-impact party outfits are legendary, but this “joggers with a duvet coat and haphazardly fashioned tinsel crown” combo surely topped them all.

It was Meg, though, who really got the party started, livening things up no-end with her ad-libbed ragga additions to The Twelve Days of Christmas. Mystifyingly, they soon wore out their welcome and the whole messy episode should probably be taken as a warning – or threat, really – to those sad snobs who spurn multicoloured LEDs and pound-shop tinsel at Christmas in favour of tasteful monochrome minimalism. It is a mulled wine accident-on-purpose waiting to happen, and they only have theirselves to blame. What kind of glutton for punishment would risk adding “carpet shampoo” to the already lengthy list of clean-up chores?

This time of year places an increased burden on women (and Kevin). This is standard fare for seasonal sitcom specials, but you might expect Motherland to add a sprig of cynicism to that sustainably sourced, handmade wreath. Instead, it quickly surrendered to the sentimentality of the season. This is a disappointment, especially in light of the fact that all these supposedly hellish family situations look positively dreamy by the miserable standards of our Covid Christmas 2020. Oh, to be sleeping on a blow-up bed in the garage to accommodate a houseful of ungrateful relatives. And wouldn’t it be nice to be packed into badly ventilated school hall for a three-hour nativity play. Maybe next year, we’ll be so lucky.

In anticipation of series three, and in order to retain respect for Motherland’s writers, it is therefore necessary to come up with a darker alternative reading for that final snow-speckled, Christmas miracle scene. A suggestion: overcome by paint fumes and prosecco, Julia, Kevin, Liz, Meg, Amanda and Anne all collapsed in that cold, dark north London park that evening. What we saw on screen was just the fragmented, hypothermia-induced hallucinations that played on a loop as their brains gradually shut down for ever. Merry Christmas.


Ellen E Jones

The GuardianTramp

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