It creeps up on you, this sitcom. You think that in its gentle look at a middle-aged widow at home with her relatives, it might not move or thrill you, that it might be the kind of show you just dip in and out of. But before you know it, it’s taken hold of your heart.
The third and final series of the Bafta-nominated Mum, written by Stefan Golaszewski (Him&Her), is a beautiful, hilarious and heart-wrenching goodbye to the characters we’ve grown to feel so strongly about. Lesley Manville’s Cathy spent the first two series quietly coping with the aftermath of her husband’s death while her cantankerous parents-in-law, hapless son, downtrodden brother and their respective partners – the unintelligent but golden-souled Kelly and the pretentious social climber Pauline – live their lives around her, mostly in her living room, eating her salt and vinegar crisps and drinking her tea.
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Rather than a cliché of a long-suffering female with no agency, Cathy is a woman coming to terms with life without her husband of many years, and feeling the demands and expectations so often placed on females to keep everyone around her afloat and be there for her family. She’s un-judgmental, forgiving and patient, but not meek or blind to her own desires.
When we last saw Cathy, she’d grown closer to family friend Michael (Peter Mullan) in a will-they-won’t-they relationship which made for some of the most moving scenes in the second series. What Golaszewski writes so astutely is unglamorous, mundane, ordinary life and how, actually, that’s where the most extraordinary moments happen. The scenes that make you cry and cheer at the TV aren’t always the loud, dramatic ones but rather a throwaway line, something someone really might say. In Mum, that’s the stuff that gets you.
There’s quite a few of those gut-punches in the final series, as well as it being just as funny as it’s ever been. Cathy and her family go to an extravagant country house which has been hired by her fantastically snobbish sister-in-law Pauline (the hilarious Dorothy Atkinson) after getting the money from her divorce settlement with her rich ex-husband. Pauline sashays across the gravel, ushering her rag-tag guests into the mansion half-heartedly, like an aristocrat might let the plumber in. Her husband Derek (Ross Boatman) spends most of the time trying to please her, repeatedly failing to choose the right kind of plate for Pauline’s artisanal croissant.
My favourite character, Jason’s (Sam Swainsbury) girlfriend Kelly (Lisa McGrillis), is quietly struggling with a big change in her life and declares this to Cathy early on in a scene which made me burst into tears. There are some wonderful moments between Cathy’s parents-in-law Reg (Karl Johnson) and Maureen (Marlene Sidaway) who bicker all day but tend to each other lovingly in small, often un-celebrated ways that don’t usually make the glossy rom-coms. Each of the episodes is set over a day in the week the family stays at the house, focusing on Cathy and Michael’s slow-burn relationship and the challenges and guilt that Cathy feels about potential romance with someone new.
So much of Mum is about what goes unsaid, the feelings we don’t express, the looks we give, the complex inner lives we lead. Golaszewski shows us staggeringly well in his writing that even the most odious, ridiculous humans have reasons to be the way they are. He shows us, with nuance, that Pauline, Kelly and the rest of the family have a past of happiness, hurt and disappointment – all before we met them – and it pulsates through their bones. So even in their most comically awful moments, we feel we know them and can laugh all the more.
Mum will stay with those who have loved it so fiercely, and I hope it will acquire a new audience of people of all ages who haven’t so far known what they’re missing. Golaszewski’s series deserves to go down in TV history as one of Britain’s best sitcoms for blending such sharp humour with such heartache. I will miss Mum greatly, but as the final series shows with such poignancy – life will go on for Cathy, in all its confusion, difficulty and hope.
Mum returns to BBC2 on Wednesday 15 May at 10pm, with the whole series available to watch on BBC iPlayer afterwards