Friday 19 August 2022

Secret Blog: 2point4 Children and the joys of rediscovering favourite TV shows


Wanted: The BBC is looking for a typical blue-collar family with both parents working and two children

I’ve consumed so much TV over the last two years. Covid restrictions saw a surge in TV watching and online streaming across the country and that was no different in our home. We moved into our house in February 2020 and spent the first few weeks with no TV aerial or WiFi which resulted in evenings spent watching old Jonathan Creek DVDs! In this way, we were quite fortunate that the beginning of the first lockdown coincided with us being able to ditch the David Renwick locked room mysteries (as entertaining as they are) for a Netflix subscription and a deep dive into iPlayer. When the daily news bulletins got too much to handle, we’d turn to boxsets. From The Missing and Line of Duty to, more recently, The Staircase, they’re now a part of our everyday routine.

Re-watching classic sitcoms has also been fun, many of which the BBC put on iPlayer or even in primetime slots. From Fawlty Towers to The Vicar of Dibley, they provided much needed comic relief. But there’s one I’ve particularly enjoyed rediscovering over the last year. 2point4 Children, Andrew Marshall’s sitcom about suburban surrealism, was one of the BBC’s biggest sitcoms of the 90s. Set in Chiswick, it follows the working-class Porter family and their friend Rona negotiating the ups, downs and bizarre turns of everyday life. After eight successful series, culminating in a Millennium special, the show ended in 1999 due to Gary Olsen’s death the following year. But considering the show’s popularity, it seemed like it had been all but forgotten apart from a smattering of repeats on UK Gold. I even had to convince my wife I hadn’t made it up as she’d never heard of it! But earlier this year, I re-discovered it again through two vehicles. The first was J.D. Collins’ brilliant podcast Don’t Slam Your Podcast. The podcast reviews each episode alongside creator Andrew Marshall recalling his memories, and interviews with cast members. The second is that the BBC have put all 56 episodes on iPlayer, something I never thought I’d say considering it’s not aired any episodes in over 20 years and that rights issues have stopped a full DVD release from ever happening.

I’m not entirely sure how I came to like 2point4 Children. I was born in 1992 so after the series started airing and was surely too young to understand some of the jokes, even during the later series. I remember watching series 7 and 8 but also remember parts of series 6 when I would’ve been about four years old! For me, it is hugely and pleasingly nostalgic. Even if I didn’t understand some of the lines, watching the series back has unlocked a peculiar sort-of muscle memory where I can remember memorising certain lines and trying to fit them into conversation with my family. My inclination for comedy when I was younger was clear. Some years later, I also remember ripping off the plot for The Deep, in which the Porters think they’ve killed their neighbours’ fish and rush to replace them only to discover they were already dead and instead have killed their racing pigeons, for my GCSE English Language exam. It served me well. And probably somewhere in my mum’s loft are VHS tapes with episodes of ChuckleVision, The Queen’s Nose and episodes of 2point4 recorded on them.

What I love about 2point4 is that Marshall marries the mundane with the surreal. He grounds the show in a setting and characters which are believable. We believe the jobs they have (Bill in catering, Ben a self-employed plumber), we believe the house they live in, and we believe they are a family. Much of this is down to the performances. Belinda Lang and Gary Olsen have great chemistry but we also believe that Bill is the leader of the pack (as the first episode title sets out) whereas Ben more often plays the clown role. But this is not always the case and does a disservice to how funny Bill is. I really like a point made in a recent blogpost on Dirtyfeed that although Bill is the glue that holds the Porters together, she can also be ridiculous in her own right. Much of the show’s believability is also down to the design which, although filmed in front of a live studio audience, doesn’t feel like a set. The Harpers’ house in My Family (also set in Chiswick) looks and feels like a brightly lit, oddly-shaped TV set and would probably be worth several million pounds if real. Rooting 2point4 in a credible domestic sphere allows Marshall to take the show to some surreal and dark places. In one episode with parallel plots, we see Bill and Rona inadvertently stumble across Shirley Bassey’s dress warehouse which leads to a fantasy song and dance number. Meanwhile, we see Ben kidnapped by a friend and taken to Portmeirion in a plot which parodies 60s TV show The Prisoner. But these plots are brought together by a touching scene between siblings Jenny and David. All of this in 30 minutes! Similar to Renwick’s One Foot in the Grave, it plays with the form and challenges us to think what a sitcom can be. But none of the strangeness feels contrived or out of place, simply a part of everyday family life. As in life, the ordinary and extraordinary sit side by side.

Re-watching it recently, I was struck by how contemporary the show was: in the early series, we see the effects of a long Conservative government in several running jokes in which Bill blames everything on Thatcher. Greed (1995) is about the lottery at a time when the National Lottery was only a year old. Fame (1999) prophesies an obsession with reality TV when the Porters film a pilot fly-on-the-wall documentary. The Millennium Experience (1999) captures the nation’s fears about the Millennium Bug. After the Fox (1999) is partly set on the Eurotunnel when that was only a few years old.

I’m delighted 2point4 has a new lease of life. The show’s aged exceptionally well and much of the dialogue still crackles. One of my favourite episodes is a Christmas special, Two Years Before the Mast (or “the baps episode” as my mum refers to it due to Sandra Dickinson’s line “I’ll just wipe my nose on these baps” living rent-free in the back of our minds), in which the Porters find themselves as stowaways on the Oriana. All episodes of 2point4 Children are available on BBC iPlayer, so go have a deep dive.

The final episode review of Don’t Slam Your Podcast lands this weekend and all episodes are available here:  

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