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TV’s guileless The Larkins, a new adaptation of HE Bates’s novel The Darling Buds of May, might have been designed with a Christmas special in mind, and this one-off episode was commissioned before the series began in October. This featherlight fantasy vision of rural life in 1950s Kent, with simplistic moral lessons, cracker-standard gags and characters thinner than a paper hat, is well suited to a mixed-ability audience dulled by food and wine. Still, after 70 minutes, you wonder if going to bed might have been preferable.
At the start of the action, if that’s the right word, the village is preparing for the nativity panto, which is being directed by Edith Pilchester (Amelia Bullmore), who has ousted the frosty posho Norma Norman (Selina Griffiths). Preparations are chaotic. There has been a spate of burglaries, adding a layer of unease to the bucolic calm. The policeman PC Harness is too gormless to get to the bottom of the crime, so Pop Larkin (Bradley Walsh) decides to turn vigilante. He and his wife Ma (Joanna Scanlan) have plenty to worry about at home, too, aside from their seven children. Their eldest daughter, Mariette (Sabrina Bartlett), and her boyfriend Charley (Tok Stephen) have arrived back from Paris unexpectedly.
With their relationship becoming serious, Ma and Pop decide to invite Charley’s parents, Mr (Patrice Naiambana) and Mrs Charlton (Yetunde Oduwole), stern and conservative Nigerians who disapprove of drinking and gambling, popular aspects of Larkin family life. Mrs Charlton asks if she is “scarifying” to Ma, a malapropism that sits awkwardly in the ear. Mariette’s charm offensive on her prospective father-in-law yields slow returns. “Dad saw your toadying a mile off,” says Charley. “You might as well have worn a toad costume.” If writing like that tickles you, you will enjoy The Larkins at Christmas. Was Catherine Zeta-Jones subjected to this kind of dialogue in the original?
We can’t blame the actors for the writing. But we can blame Walsh for laying on his “charming lad” persona thicker than cold bread sauce. In such a large ensemble, inevitably there are one or two supporting characters who catch the eye. Barney Walsh, Bradley’s real-life son, plays the literally clueless bobby with such vacancy that it is quite endearing. I also enjoyed Robert Bathurst’s turn as the actor Jonny Delamere who throws his weight around in the panto with delusions of thespian grandeur. We must admire the bravery of introducing the concept of am-dram to a series that is not always gleaming with professional polish. Talk about a metaverse.
Despite the ostensible setting, The Larkins bears little evidence of the 1950s, aside from the odd reference to the war. The clash of cultures with the Charltons has come out of the late 20th century, as has Charley’s range of bright Christmas jumpers. Given that the series is happy to pick and choose a few contemporary flourishes, it’s a shame that so many of the characters are reduced to such rigid caricatures. At the top of the village’s iron class structure are the cold aloof Normans, then at the bottom are the working-class family who struggle for money and are suspected of criminal tendencies. The Larkinsfloat somewhere between these two poles. They represent a go-getting lower-middle-class who have enough to celebrate Christmas properly, but not at the expense of a correct set of priorities: family, friendship, bonhomie.
This uneasy social dynamic means that while The Larkins at Christmas is mostly predictable and safe, once or twice it feels a bit weird and uncomfortable. This isn’t a rural idyll but a dystopia, a kind of Kentish Truman Show in which none of the characters progress or escape. Worse than that, they have a baby farting as a recurrent gag. Families rehashing lame jokes while trying not to fall apart: it’s festive, I suppose, but not in a good way.