BBC One’s Pandemonium review: A lockdown comedy special with gallows humour

A family's struggles during the pandemic tap into a shared lockdown language.

Pandemonium
3.0 out of 5 star rating

“Let’s press on – for as long as we legally can,” says Rachel Jessop, an increasingly desperate (bordering on deranged) look in her eye. It’s October of this year, and she’s booked a last-ditch seaside holiday for her family, only to learn that the country will be plunged into a second lockdown the following week.

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Rachel (Katherine Parkinson) is at the end of her tether, having single-handedly propped up her family during lockdown.

Flashback to January, and dad Paul (Jim Howick) has just booked the plane tickets for the family’s blow-out summer holiday to California. Paul forgot his wife’s instructions to buy ‘flexible’ tickets (which would get them a full refund if needed), but after all, as he tells her afterwards: why would they cancel their plans?

Meanwhile Rachel hopes to open a cafe; daughter Amy (Freya Parks) intends to study at Manchester come September; and Rachel’s brother Robin (Tom Basden) is getting married in the summer. The virus on the news is just a conspiracy theory, according to granny Sue (Alison Steadman). As they crack the champagne bottle open, they all agree that 2020 is going to be their year – and their youngest son, Ben (Jack Christou), has a camcorder ready to capture every moment. 

Of course, as every family in the country knows, even the best laid plans, holidays, and New Year’s resolutions were written off come March. And while a lockdown comedy might feel too close for comfort for some viewers – especially given the latest government U-turn on Christmas gatherings – Pandemonium manages to tap into a shared lockdown language, approaching topics like financial ruin and even the virus itself with a kind of gallows humour.

In various flashbacks, there are plenty of scenarios that may prove familiar to viewers. We have the family awkwardly watching prolonged sex scenes in Normal People. We have grandmother Sue constantly turning up uninvited and breaking the rules (while practically licking her lips over Joe Wicks). We have the catty comments about the neighbours during the Clap for Our Carers (“Any excuse to get her bloody cello out”); the toilet roll orders from Amazon; and of course, the digs about Dominic Cummings.

Pandemonium
Pandemonium (BBC Pictures)
BBC

In fact, almost every cultural moment from the past year is given a nod, bar the Black Lives Matter movement; it was a shame the episode couldn’t briefly touch on it as The Vicar of Dibley in Lockdown has done. 

We do tackle how the stress of lockdown has impacted Rachel and Paul’s sex life. Paul is an ex-Olympic archer who ran an archery school prior to lockdown. Now unemployed and guilt-ridden over the plane ticket debacle, he’s oblivious to the fact that wife Rachel has been taking out hefty loans to keep them all afloat.

Mocked and teased by his son, his ever-present grumpy teenage daughter (who decided to defer her university place), and her girlfriend Maya (Mica Ricketts), Paul has lost his confidence and footing.

Rachel is determined to use their October seaside holiday as a chance to bolster his mojo and reignite passions, but insecure Paul is having second thoughts about all the “gear” she’s packed in the suitcase, which she’s none too pleased about: “Leather is extremely difficult to fold!”

In parts, this half-hour comedy may hit a little too close to the bone, particularly when it comes to financial loss or non-refundable holiday plans. And Rachel’s rousing comments about a cheap but family-focussed Christmas may fall flat for many this year.

However, the show’s main message, laid out explicitly in the final moments, is one that we can all get behind: yes, this year has been s**t; but here’s hoping for the next. 

Pandemonium is available to watch now on BBC iPlayer.

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Looking for something else to watch? Check out our guide to the best Christmas TV, or visit our TV Guide.