Motherland review: Biting satire that strikes a chord
PUBLISHED: 13:37 09 November 2017
The BBC’s new comedy Motherland is painfully on point when it comes to the trials and tribulations of being a working parent
There was a mother whose children went to school with mine who would arrive in the playground on a Segway – she’d glide through the gates, circumnavigate the perimeter causing parents to scatter, barely stop for long enough to pick up her pillion passenger and then glide away into the distance.
At the time, I thought what a brilliant seg-ment (sorry) this would make in a sitcom about the horror of the playground or, more to the point, the sitcom I’d write about the politics of parenthood – the trials and tribulations of navigating a world you are thrust into on the basis of your guardianship of minors.
I didn’t write it. But if I had, it wouldn’t have been a patch on Motherland, a joint effort from Sharon Horgan (Catastrophe), Graham Linehan (Father Ted), Helen Linehan and Holly Walsh, which is a particular treat for working parents past, present and future.
I still shudder when I recall those days: the constant rows about who should take the day off when a child was ill (which normally came down to who earned more), the shame of being the last parent to pick up a child from school on a regular basis, ‘that look’ from colleagues when you left earlier than anyone else, the bizarre obsession with actually doing more than anyone else to ‘prove’ you could cope, the complete, total, utter exhaustion that you had to hide from everyone. If none of that sounds like a laugh, I promise, it’s fertile ground.
Motherland takes the above and presents it warts and all: while we sympathise with protagonist Julia (Anna Maxwell Martin, who plays this role with recognisable desperation), she’s written to be someone we recognise and identify with rather than someone we actually like. It’s clever, because desperation doesn’t make you particularly nice, it just makes you even more manipulative.
The episode opened with Julia at work and fielding a call from her son’s school, asking her to shed light on missing swimming shorts: “Can he swim in his pants?,” she asked, exasperated, “can I just ask you, did you try calling my husband at all...?”
Smashing her phone in frustration, Julia looked up to see her boss. At a one-on-one in the office, he gave a perfect example of the kind of passive-aggressive boss-employee chat that leaves the former feeling as if they’ve met their obligation to staff wellbeing and the latter feeling as if they’re dangling on the edge of an abyss with no guy rope.
“Look Julia, I get it, it’s hard. People say women can have it all, but that’s easy to say. You constantly feel like you’re letting someone down. I get it. I’ve got kids myself. I come to a family of very strong women, so I understand,” he told her, as relief flooded across her face, “so just sort it out, yeah?”
In a café with her support system – harder than a meteorite Liz (the sublime Diane Morgan) and sexually-frustrated but well-meaning Kevin (Paul Ready) – Julia felt obligated to invite the children of frosty clique-leader Amanda (Lucy Punch) to her daughter Ivy’s party, a simple pizza restaurant affair that became an at-home blowout after a spot of mum-shaming.
Liz played up the positives: “Invite 30 kids you get 30 invitations back. It’s free childcare” and suggests the only effort involved will be some supermarket caterpillar cakes, games involving miniature gladiatorial battles over a £1 coin and as a finale, playing Gangnam Style after serving undiluted squash.
With her permanently-unavailable-to-help husband Paul (Oliver Chris) absent at a football match (“I’ll be there for her actual birthday”) and her mother Marion (Ellie Haddintgon) on strike having grown tired of providing free childcare, Julia was left to fail alone. She forgot to place the online supermarket order. She can’t blow up balloons. The entertainer she’s booked – Animal Man – only has cats in baskets and may be “slightly racist”.
It’s a relief when Liz and Kevin arrive, but the joy is short-lived: birthday girl Ivy has norovirus and can’t attend her own party. From then on, it’s an unmitigated disaster, and it’s utterly fantastic.
Sharply observed, wickedly written and wonderfully played, Motherland has the lot: sanctimonious mothers, hateful mum gangs bullying and back-stabbing, partners who feel parenting shouldn’t really involve them, rigid rules in the workplace that only benefit people with themselves to please, relatives adept at sidestepping babysitting and, at its heart, the parents you actually come to rely on as your actual support system. On which note, Sally and Hen: thank you.