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By Dr Tom Christie

January 20th, 2014

Keeping Mum: Dementia and the Pathos of Situation Comedy

The situation comedy has a long history within British TV, producing some of the most iconic TV moments in popular consciousness.  But what happens when characters with dementia become centre stage?

Written by Geoffrey Atherden, Keeping Mum was arguably one of the most controversial BBC situation comedies of the 1990s.  A loose remake of Mother and Son, an Australian TV comedy, Keeping Mum ran for two series from 1997-98 and centred around the somewhat fraught suburban life of Andrew Beare (Martin Ball), who balanced the care of his elderly mother Peggy (Stephanie Cole) with inevitably fruitless attempts to find employment and maintain a social life. 

The series’ dark humour largely stemmed from Andrew’s doomed efforts to maintain some semblance of normality in his day-to-day routine, which were inevitably thwarted by his mother’s constantly erratic behaviour and the haughty disinterest of his brother Richard (David Haig), an upwardly-mobile health care professional who was always quick to criticise the quality of Peggy’s care while simultaneously doing everything in his power to avoid actively involving himself in it (largely due to his deep-seated fear that it might impinge on his own personal life).

Keeping Mum met with a storm of criticism at the time of broadcast, emanating from charitable organisations and individuals alike.  Although the series did not go so far as to directly reference any one form of dementia in an explicit way, Peggy’s memory loss and behavioural difficulties - which were usually geared by the script to cause maximum social embarrassment for Andrew - caused many to opine that mining humorous potential from people affected by a “mental disorder” was an inappropriate strategy for a mainstream prime-time comedy, and insensitive to the emotional needs of carers.  The series’ particular emphasis on laboured Schadenfreude made this observation seem all the starker. 

Stephanie Cole delivered a typically nuanced performance, imbuing Peggy with brief moments of incisive intelligence and pithy wit just before the character delivers an acutely barbed criticism or evidence of inexplicable behaviour, decimating her son’s confidence and shredding his nerves in the process.  Deliberately playing against the outspoken moral conviction and serrated drollness of her Diana Trent character in the BBC’s earlier sitcom Waiting for God, Cole works hard to lend similar dimension to Peggy as the elderly woman constantly undermines her son’s struggle to achieve normality, often single-handedly frustrating everything from his romantic ambitions to his desire for continuous employment. 

Ultimately, however, even Cole was unable to make Peggy sympathetic; the character inevitably came across as domineering and even slyly manipulative, further irritating those who felt that the programme was trivialising dementia for comedic purposes.

Today, Keeping Mum has all but disappeared from the public consciousness, its short-lived run on the BBC ultimately due to constantly poor ratings rather than a direct result of the sharp criticism which met its broadcast. 

Yet in recent years, some have questioned whether the series was necessary as thoughtlessly maladroit as it had been portrayed in the mainstream media. 

Martin Ball’s thoughtful performance as Andrew, for instance, projects just as much care and consideration for his unpredictable mother as it does aggravation at her behaviour.  He, more than any of the other characters, seems resolved to the fact that it is Peggy’s condition, rather than any deliberate attempt on her part to cause hurt or offence, which is the driving force behind the difficulties that she (often inadvertently) causes. 

Versatile character actor David Haig likewise impresses as Richard, and the series regularly edged closest to conventional comedy when Peggy was pricking the pretentions of her pompous son as he subtly (and, often, not so subtly) attempted to distance himself from her. 

Paradoxically, however, the series perhaps suffered most from its strangely coy lack of willingness to confront the complex difficulties of dementia head-on - a somewhat ironic situation, given the barrage of disapproval that it received on account of the perception that it was making light of the disorder to generate laughs. 

With Cole’s obvious determination to avoid a stereotypical portrayal of dementia, and the pathos of Ball’s empathetic performance, a more multifaceted approach had the potential to produce a genuinely thought-provoking and compassionate comedy. 

Sadly, Keeping Mum fell some way short of this goal, content to focus somewhat indolently upon dementia as a vehicle for the humour of discomfort rather than exploring the series’ ability to produce a more subtly-refined exploration of mental health in modern society.

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Categories: Comedy Arts