The great city of Liverpool has been well served by the sitcom industry over the years. The Liver Birds, Boys from the Blackstuff, Bread, The Royle Family. These are all highly successful and highly watchable, if occasionally mordant. They all fell into a bit of a pattern – a recipe of sorts, like Scouse itself (originally a stew of course) – with similar essential ingredients: wit, irreverence, strong women carrying weak men, a family theme, and a certain sassy style.
ITV’s latest stab at sitcom success, The Family Pile, falls uneasily into this line of succession. In this case, the mixture is: four sisters recently bereaved; three husbands-slash partners; three kids; one affair between a sister and another sister’s hubby; and one very large house. With the recent death of the siblings’ mum, following closely on from that of their dad, eldest sister Nicole (Amanda Abbington) sneakily puts their childhood home on the market, a move that the rest of the clan disapproves of. Nicole’s attempts to impress buyers aren’t helped by her sister Yvette (Clare Calbraith) deciding to leave their other sister Ursula’s (Claire Keelan) husband Austin (Richard Pepple) tied up to their deceased parents’ marital bed after a sex game. Still with me?
Youngest sister Gaynor, meanwhile, is in an unstable relationship with an unusually abrasive bloke named Greg (James Nelson-Joyce), and their toddler is inclined to behave more like a dog or a cow than a human child, which is sort of normal. During the course of the sisters’ half-hearted attempts to clear the old place, it becomes apparent that none of them really want to let go of it.
It feels very much like it’s about to become something like a home of multiple multigenerational occupation, Bread-style, but with more sex and bad language than Nellie Boswell would have put up with. That’s not so good, because having virtually everything takes place in a couple of rooms (which worked so well with The Royle Family) just feels claustrophobic. That means there’s nothing much in the way of action for the cast to play off against, and the dialogue often doesn’t quite manage to carry them through a scene.
There’s a lot of warmth in the set-up – the usual Liverpudlian hearts of gold beneath the acerbic wisecracks – and some moments of inspired humour. I particularly enjoyed fashion-conscious Gaynor’s description of her new nail varnish as “a new shade from the Gothic range, Midnight Haemorrhage”, and the bit when her kid accidentally runs into Nicole’s husband Stuart and cripples him (male agony has rarely been more accurately portrayed as he groans “me plums”). Calbraith’s vain, dim, sex-mad (“grief hits people in different ways”) creation Yvette has also got comedic potential, albeit tottering towards stereotype in her high heels. “Dracula meets Rod Stewart” is also an inspired description of their late father.
However, on the whole, Brian Dooley’s script lacks Scouse sparkle. I’d imagine that if you spent half an hour in a lively Merseyside boozer, you’d probably find more of the sardonic humour the folk there are renowned for. It’s what made those other historic sitcoms written by the likes of Carla Lane and Alan Bleasdale such a delight. But The Family Pile just isn’t the pile of laughs it needs to be to live up to its predecessors. Sitcom? My arse!