I’ve always been impressed by sitcoms that don’t need overblown location-based gags or drastic changes of scene to make their point or get a giggle. I must confess, Wanderers, I’m a bit of a closet bottle-episode geek. Set something in one room, or in this case, one village hall with a little barely-separate kitchen, and I’m automatically going to sit up and take notice. In the case of BBC4 sitcom Up the Women, I’m glad I did.
Written by Jessica Hynes, Up the Women is a sitcom in the classic vein of Dad’s Army and ‘Allo ‘Allo!, both of which I’ve loved since I was a child. For those of you now groaning because you didn’t like the above sitcoms – relax, it’s not exactly like them. However, the humour in those particular comedies was always very character-based, at least as far as I was concerned, and Up the Women relies almost entirely on its characters to raise a smile. The setting, as I’ve mentioned, is the interior of a village hall, and the event that brings them together is a routine craft circle meeting, against which mundane background a whole cast of diverse, vibrant and generally excellent characters are displayed.
It’s 1910 (not now, you haven’t missed the invention of the time machine – in the series) and Margaret (played by Hynes herself) returns from a trip to London full of suffragette fervour and asks the craft group she’s part of to lend its support to the cause. After some debate, the group is dutifully renamed ‘Banbury Intricate Craft Circle Politely Requests Women’s Suffrage’ and then has to figure out how exactly being a suffragette group actually works.
Margaret – intelligent, knowledgeable and somewhat underapprectiated – struggles to convey her passion to the rest of the group, for all that they try. Well, Helen (Rebecca Front) doesn’t try at all, largely disapproving of the whole idea, but the rest of them do their best. There’s sweet, rather naïve spinster Gwen (Vicki Pepperdine), who doesn’t always necessarily get it right, and Eva (Emma Pierson), who more than makes up for what she lacks in political fervour in anecdotes about her fourteen – soon to be fifteen – children. Helen’s mother, Myrtle (Judy Parfitt), seems to avoid any actual crafts as much as possible but has a wealth of slightly off-colour stories to share, and Emily – Helen’s long-suffering daughter, played by Georgia Groome – is possibly the most ardent suffragette of them all, if only she wasn’t constantly being shushed by her mother or reluctantly distracted by her apparent interest in Thomas (Ryan Sampson), a fairly bright young lad who’s joined the group as a male ally hoping to further their cause. Much to the bemusement of the good-natured caretaker, Mr Miller (Adrian Scarborough), this is the motley band who hope to represent Banbury’s suffrage movement.
Sitcoms aren’t always particularly believable depictions of their settings, but honestly I can only imagine that a fair few suffragette groups really did start out quite timidly and uncertainly, just as our characters do, by picketing local post offices and selling jam. This really only adds to the comic effect – the humour is played straight and all the better for it, in my opinion. Filmed in front of a live audience, there’s no need for canned laughter as everyone’s clearly enjoying the show. The jokes are pretty family-friendly – if you’re old enough to understand what Myrtle’s on about, you’re old enough to handle it – and the delivery impeccable. It’s also lovely, especially in a show about women’s struggle for equality, to have such a predominantly female cast proving, once and for all, that anyone who says women can’t be funny has probably never met a woman.
The first series, which aired recently enough to still be available on iPlayer in full at time of writing, is three episodes long, but a second series has been commissioned for BBC2 and is expected to be a full six episodes in duration. If you’re a fan of older-style sitcoms, or simply looking for a smart comedy that stands out from the crowd a little, this could be the show for you. It’s certainly worth checking out.
I’d give this show a four out of five – it’s light, funny and it won’t break your brain.
Eleanor Musgrove (is suddenly craving purple trifle)