Review - Not searing, but just warm enough

11th May 2012 at 01:00

I assume that people did write monologues before Alan Bennett. And that some of those monologues may have featured women of a certain age - perhaps, even, speaking in Northern accents.

Still, ever since Bennett's Talking Heads series was first aired in the 1980s, it has become impossible to watch a television monologue featuring a Northern woman of a certain age without thinking: Alan Bennett. Or, more specifically: sub-Alan Bennett. Which is a shame because, on the whole, A Civil Arrangement is rather good.

The one-off BBC drama features Alison Steadman as Isobel, the mother of, in her own words, "the broom". Her daughter Kelly is marrying Janice, who works as a horticulturist at the local garden centre: "she got us a great deal on our blue lobelias". Kelly's father throws a series of tantrums as he struggles to come to terms with "his little princess crossing to the dark side". Meanwhile, Isobel chides herself for failing to pick up earlier on her daughter's sexuality: "I could never get her excited about pop socks."

She herself is stuck in a frustrating, thankless marriage, addressing viewers while working her way through a succession of household tasks: unloading the washing, hanging up the washing, cutting back the roses.

Hmmm. This is a version of England where women are called Renie, washing lines rotate and the roses always need trimming. Do women still live like this? In 1988, when Bennett was writing, they definitely did. Today, these women are more likely to be the grandmother than the mother of the bride.

Still, there are enough good lines to justify any suspension of 21st-century disbelief. When Isobel holds up two bridal figurines that she has separated from their miniature grooms and glued together, Janice is overwhelmed and bursts into tears. "I gave her a hug," says Isobel. "I'm not normally very tactile, but I felt the situation called for it." And, earlier: "These civic places aren't the same. No romance. It's like nipping in for planning permission."

The clash of two Englands is irresistible. As she takes cling-filmed trays of sausage rolls and triangular sandwiches from the fridge, Isobel talks about hen-night drinking games and blow-up dolls. "L-plates?" she says, after having been forced to say the word "lesbian" out loud. "I get it now."

Steadman exudes genuine warmth, and there is an undeniable likeability to her character. The drama has moments of real poignancy, along with an utterly lovely ending, channelling the spirit of Cold Comfort Farm.

A Civil Arrangement is not Bennett. It is not a searing, heartwrenching portrait of loneliness or regret. Ultimately, it is simply a bit of televisual fluff. But it is comforting, feel-good, funny fluff. And that does wonders for the roses.

A Civil Arrangement is available on BBC iPlayer.

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