The story of two cousins living in the Cotswolds is hilarious and humane—with a subtle political streakby Sameer Rahim / February 14, 2020 / Leave a comment
When David Cameron was prime minister—about a century ago, it feels like—there was a lot of media chatter about the “Chipping Norton Set.” In 2012 the Cotswolds’ town was home to some of the most powerful and best-connected people in the country: aside from Cameron, there was Matthew Freud and Elisabeth Murdoch, Rebekah Brooks, Steve Hilton and Jeremy Clarkson, who all, apparently, hung out with each other at lavish parties and plotted how they were going to take over more of the world. How Tempus fugit.
More recently, a somewhat different set has put the Cotswolds on the map. Fans of the BBC sitcom This Country are more likely to associate this part of rural England with the Mucklowe cousins, Kerry and Kurtan, who live in somewhat less exalted circumstances than the former prime minister. Unemployed (mostly), the pair fill their time by dossing about their village and testing the patience of the local vicar. Kerry once saw Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen at the Co-op (“he’s so humble”) but that’s the extent of their contact with celebrity. Brilliantly funny, full of pitch-perfect observations about a class of people often stereotyped, This Country has a big heart to boot. The third and final series starts on Monday evening on BBC One.
Written by and starring brother and sister Daisy May Cooper and Charlie Cooper, This Country owes a lot to two predecessors. The first is The Office, which pioneered the mockumentary format, and Detectorists, which mines the humour of small-town life. (Incidentally, both star Mackenzie Crook, who Charlie Cooper often seems like a younger version of.) This Country is also a family affair: Paul Cooper, the siblings’ dad, plays Kerry’s estranged father. Despite being a Peeping Tom and a criminal, he is the object of Kerry’s unrequited adoration—a theme that runs through the series. Other family members and friends are also involved, giving the whole production a feeling of in-jokes overheard. (Sadly, one of the best minor characters, Michael “Slugs” Slugette, died last year of a brain tumour.)
The show’s opening titles indicate this will be an investigation into “marginalised” young people—BBC-types coming up from London to see how “real” people live. Naturally, the world they encounter—one where the biggest drama is over who gets access to the oven, Kurtan with his pizza or Kerry with her Turkey dinosaurs—comically undermines the earnest premise. But still, there is a subtle political thread. Feckless they might be, but Kerry and Kurtan are unwitting victims of austerity and job insecurity. The village has a food bank and unreliable transport. Their long-suffering vicar (superbly played by Paul Chahidi) picks up the slack, taking the cousins under his wing and trying to see the best in them, despite the volleys of abuse he has to deal with. In one memorable scene at the end of series one, Kurtan has decided to leave the village for the bright lights of Swindon. Playing peacemaker, the vicar has to respond when a resentful Kerry demands ownership of the words “bellshaft, wankcoin and arsepirate—because I made them up.” The Big Society in action, you could say.
The show was originally called Kerry and for me Daisy May Cooper is the star. Trained at RADA, she has no problem making herself look as slobby and unattractive as possible. Dressed in her knock-off England kit (four lions on the shirt), you will usually find her gorging on Birds Eye potato waffles or hating on old people: “If two old people go out for a meal they’ll make just as much mess as a baby in a high-chair.” Yet she’s also utterly lovable, whether she’s playacting with children half her age, running away from sheep or blowing tunelessly on a trumpet. The moment in series two when she thinks her dad has got her a soda stream for her birthday will bring a tear to your eye. (He hasn’t: Kurtan just pretends it was from him.) When her dad gets her involved in a criminal scheme involving stolen vacuum cleaners, he tries to force her to take the rap. “Mucklowes look after Mucklowes,” is his refrain. But actually, it’s the cousins who, despite the bickering, truly look after each other.
Although it’s deservedly won Baftas, This Country hasn’t had the attention of its BBC contemporary Fleabag. Whatever the latter show’s virtues, the marketability of its star Phoebe Waller-Bridge and the sheer upper-middle-classness of her world has given it an unfair advantage. You can well imagine Waller-Bridge’s character turning up at a Chipping Norton party and having ditzy adventures. But This Country focuses on the people who would be serving them the drinks—the kind who describe chick-peas as “shit peas,” and for whom the big city is Bristol, not London.
The Coopers are bringing the series to an end because they are victims of their own success. They’re now so famous they can’t sit in pubs and eavesdrop like they used to. Local reaction, you might imagine, would be mixed given that this is hardly a sugar-coated portrayal. The people at the Bowls Club Kurtan works at are fine, he says, “as long as you don’t mention foreigners or self-service checkouts. Because they really don’t like either of those things.” But most have taken it in good humour. Speaking to the Guardian, landlord Stephen Wilson, who lives in the village, gets it right. “It’s not vindictive or nasty. It’s understanding of the way people are.”
Series three of This Country begins on Monday 17th February at 10.35pm on BBC One