Written by Hazel Davis

Arts

Binging: Jam & Jerusalem

So, you’ve finished The Wire, Breaking Bad and The Killing but you’re still hungry for more boxsets. Fear not, Standard Issue writers are on the case with some hidden gems you might not yet have seen. This week, Hazel Davis is raging that more people aren’t in love with Jam & Jerusalem.

Jam & Jerusalem cast shot

The Jam & Jerusalem cast. All photos: BBC.

It usually goes like this.

Me: “I love Jam & Jerusalem.”

“What’s that now?”

“You know, Jennifer Saunders’ sitcom!?”

Absolutely Fabulous?”

“No! Jam & Jerusalem!”

“Never heard of it. Is it from the 80s?”

Jam & Jerusalem was axed after a pitifully few three series (yet the Beeb cranks The [bloody] Archers ON and ON). Why everyone isn’t completely in love with it is utterly beyond me.

I can only imagine that people sat down expecting Edina and Patsy to rock up (in this, Joanna Lumley plays an elderly church organist who has an accident in the second series and disappears without fanfare) and, disappointed to find it was all rolling hills and local pubs, wandered off bored. Well, more fool them. Jam & Jerusalem is one of the best things on TV in the last decade and here’s why.

It’s like Jennifer Saunders was asked to write Last of the Summer Wine while at the same time taking the piss out of Last of the Summer Wine. With a crucifixion scene made out of teasels (“Teasels are very versatile”).

The pilot is a vérité-style look at life in rural Devon. You can tell by the theme tune – a Kate Rusby cover of The Village Green Preservation Society – that it’s going to appeal to a niche group of people. It’s set in the fictional village of Clatterford on Dartmoor and the plot essentially revolves around widowed nurse Sal, played MAGNIFICENTLY by Sue Johnston, and her relationship with the local WI, a fantastic bunch of loons, which includes Dawn French, Maggie Steed and the painfully funny Rosie Cavaliero.

“Where are the belly laughs? Where are the ‘I love you Mum’ hugs? There are none because everyone’s too busy getting on with life.”

Sal’s useless children are an awesomely furious James, played by David Mitchell (the finest performance of his career, in my opinion) and a feckless Tash, who is so flaky I am certain she’s based on someone I know, played with chaotic glee by Sally Phillips.

As it settles, it becomes more sitcom-friendly. Sal is surrounded by lovable irritants whom she can’t escape but doesn’t really want to. There are pregnancy scares, hurt feelings (mostly Maggie Steed’s), a lot of hiding from the doorbell and a hilarious incident with some uploaded medical photos. Sal has a brilliantly down-to-earth pal, Tip (Pauline McGlynn). Tick.

But look closer and there are some achingly on-the-money observations, some of which actually make you gasp. Sal’s relationship with her children is awkward but never really redeemed in a satisfactory way, much like life. Tip goes to the pub with female friends and husband in tow and it’s no biggie. Farming is hard work and stressful and makes you grumpy and tired. Saunders’ own character, the wealthy landowner Caroline, is nailed SO perfectly that I often wonder if anyone who didn’t spend a year on a farm with landed gentry and who doesn’t frequently go backstage at folk festivals can ever really get her (told you it was niche).

J&J cast as a netball teamOn rewatching, I wonder whether these pin-sharp details and unresolved endings are what turned people off. Where are the belly laughs? Where are the “I love you Mum” hugs? There are none because everyone’s too busy getting on with life. Well, actually, there’s Dawn French’s character Rosie (who has multiple personality disorder), who sticks out like a sore thumb. She’s a loud and ridiculous pantomime horse among a cast of subtle Susans. However, she’s SO, SO funny and some of her lines are so killer that it really doesn’t matter.

And, here’s the glorious rub, it’s all about the women. But it’s not about ‘women when men’s backs are turned’ as so many mostly female shows are. It’s just more about the women than the men. Caroline’s husband never makes an appearance, though they seem to be perfectly happy. Tip’s husband doesn’t say much. Sal’s husband is dead, as is Kate Bales’. And, unlike other shows JUST about women, the apparent men are a mixture of good, bad, pleasant and idiotic. It’s almost like it’s OK to do a show from a largely female perspective and it not to be a big deal. WHO KNEW? Not the BBC, that’s for sure.

(Oh and Jennifer Saunders wrote the show with her ex-PA. I’ll just leave that here.)

@hazedavis

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Written by Hazel Davis

Hazel Davis is a freelance writer from West Yorkshire. She has two tiny children but the majority of her hours are taken up with thinking about Alec Baldwin singing sea shanties and the time someone once called her "moreishly interesting".