Issue 223 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1998 Copyright Socialist Review

Did you see?

The humour of recognition



The Royle Family is hailed by the BBC as an 'innovative new comedy drama series'. Good actors, such as the left wing Ricky Tomilinson, attempt to provide a realistic view of working class life. It does appear more real than most other television but is it really comedy or drama?
Maybe it's refreshing to see the realities of daily life that programmes like EastEnders ignore. British soaps and sitcoms, although seemingly portraits of working class life, rarely show the realities of everyday life that most people experience. We see the pub and the marketplace, the cafe and the restaurant, but never see the minutiae of arguments over the phone bill or people actually watching television, instead of it just being on in the background. In The Royle Family the normalities of everyday life are pushed to the front, instead of being ignored or submerged under unbelievable storylines. This is what makes the programme original and perhaps more true to life than many other attempts at working class portrayal.
Snapshot of reality? Denise, played by Caroline Aherne of Mrs Merton fame, and her friend Cheryl sit in the kitchen sipping tea, flicking through a mail order catalogue, giggling at the men's underwear pages. Jim, the father, goes upstairs 'to have an Eartha Kitt' and on his return warns the rest of the family not to go anywhere near the bathroom for the next half hour. When have we ever heard Grant MitchelI talk so openly about such mundane matters or seen Tiffany and Bianca poring over a mail order catalogue? The Royle family may not have lives as exciting as the high traumas and tragedies of Albert Square, but then who does?
In terms of comedy this is a novel break from the staid formula of British sitcoms. There is no build up of a farcical situation, which you can see coming from the beginning and which is neatly rounded off at the end of the episode. Don't expect anything of the kind from the Royles. The 'jokes' are in the form of half hearted insults batted back and forth across the family's sitting room as they sit around staring at the television. Or else they are quirky observations on everyday life, like the excitement of a neighbour's new car, which the whole family, except Jim, scurries off the sofa to gawp at out of the window, while we get to spend five minutes looking at their arses (seemingly the Royle's favourite word). The jokes and insults are mildly amusing, but only as much as anything that might be said by my mum or dad. This is the humour of recognition. Is this a picture of authentic working class, no-holds-barred family life, and if so, why would anyone think it makes interesting entertainment? Denise and her fiancé argue about whether to go down the pub. The most dangerous thing Anthony, Denise's younger brother, gets up to is asking his mum for a fag. We see the food they eat, the fullness of the ashtrays and Jim trying on a pair of jeans, bought round by a neighbour flogging knocked-off merchandise, to the amusement of the rest of the family. To be honest, it's dull. This is a mere reflection of the banal, mundane nature of life for many people and it doesn't really go anywhere.
Despite its good intentions there is a basic flaw with the programme. Why would anyone want to spend half an hour on a Monday evening watching the idiosyncrasies of a family on television when probably we all know similar families to the Royles who we can visit?
Beccy Reese

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