Penelope Keith is something of a legend in the world of the British sitcom. From her role as snooty Margo Leadbetter in The Good Life, to that of snooty Audrey Fforbes-Hamilton in To the Manor Born, she has played the part of the snooty comedienne for over five decades.
An oft-forgotten chapter in the oeuvre of Keith, however, is the 1995 BBC series Next of Kin, released on DVD for the very first time this week as part Simply Media’s BBC Classics Collection.
Having reached retirement, married couple Maggie (Keith) and Andrew (William Gaunt – Sergeant Cork, No Place Like Home) plan to escape their friends and family by moving to France to live the rest of their days in wine and cheese. That dream is quashed, however, after their estranged son Graham and his wife, referred only to as “Bootface”, are killed in a car crash, leaving their three children without guardians. And so, begrudgingly, the child-hating Maggie takes the orphaned children under her wing; thirteen year old environmentalist and staunch vegetarian Georgia (Ann Gosling) takes an instant hatred towards her newfound grandparents, whilst eleven year old Phillip (Matthew Clarke) has anger issues and refuses to eat anything but spam. The youngest of the clan, Jake (Jamie Lucraft) comes complete with a Durrell-like menagerie and a million and one questions about the birds and the bees.
As the couple adjust to their chaotic new lifestyle, they are helped by cleaner Liz (Tracie Bennett) and handyman Tom (Mark Powley), who between their domestic duties and babysitting, provide the mandatory romantic story arc for the series.
Performances throughout are typical of nineties Britcom; the adults are delightfully twee, each delivering their lines with the semi-conviction that occurs when hindered by a laughter track. The children, meanwhile, have all the skills of a standard CBBC drama. That’s not to say, however, that there is not joy to be found; it’s simply a product of a televisual age somewhat forgotten, complete with the semi-moral message to each episode that was predominant of the time.
Watching through the series, one thing that does bother somewhat (save for the dirge-like rendition of “Tea For Two” during the opening credits), is that things do not really seem to progress throughout. Each episode sees at least one of the children seemingly accept their new guardians a little more, only to return to mutual hatred the next week. Sure, it’s a sitcom, but it might have been nice to actually see some character progression throughout, rather than relying entirely on the concept of “we hate the children and the children hate us” for three seasons. As it is, the children come across as rather unlikeable and the grandparents unreasoning, something that probably would have been remedied in a more modern interpretation of the show.
All in all, however, Next of Kin is an enjoyable return to a bygone age of British comedy. Sure, it’s not quite up there with The Good Life, but it’s certainly more tender and heartfelt than the likes of My Family.
Dir: Gareth Gwenian
Scr: Jan Etherington, Gavin Petrie
Starring: Penelope Keith, William Gaunt, Ann Gosling, Matthew Clarke, Jamie Lucraft, Tracie Bennett, Mark Powley
Number of Episodes: 22
Episode Runtime: 30mins
Next of Kin is out on DVD on 25th April from Simply Media