On the weekend when Britain honours all mothers of different shapes, sizes and guises, it would seem the ideal opportunity to take a look at the different perceptions of the matriarchs of television families throughout the years. The domestic family dynamic is a constant theme of nearly all British situation comedies, irrespective of how dominant, they all revert back to family and the frequently complex and difficult relationships between family members. From Elsie Garnett to Pam Shipman, it’s always the strong females which play a pivotal role in keeping the family (and in turn the sitcom) together. So as a tribute to all mums everywhere, here’s my top five sitcom mums (please let me know yours!).
Probably the most interesting characterisation of a Woman in a British sitcom, Ria Parkinson in Carla Lane’s Butterflies didn’t adhere to the traditional domestic attitude towards women which we had become accustomed to. Instead Ria rebelled against 1970’s housewife values and dared to dream of a better life away from nine to five dentist husband Ben and two sons Adam and Russell. This may be any old suburban sitcom until Ria meets Leonard, a successful businessman who recently split from his wife. This begins a daily meeting in the park where Ria can escape the mundane tribulations of life and enjoy an equal relationship with Leonard. Flying the flag for women’s liberation, this is possibly the only time in sitcom when we explore the mind of a woman and the use of occasional interior monologue provide an insight into the darkest and most inner thoughts of a middle aged female. When Carla Lane wrote Butterflies, she wasn’t writing just a sitcom but an invaluable piece of social history.
The original long suffering wife in British sitcom, she might not have had many lines but Elsie Garnett (played by the great Dandy Nichols) frequently outwitted the frustrated Alf as he preached his Victorian values to his daughter and son in law Rita and Mike. It became a running joke between actors Warren Mitchell and Dandy Nichols that Alf could have a long monologue running for two or three pages of dialogue and then Elsie could steal the scene just by one perfectly timed utterance of the word “Pig!”. Devoid of political opinion, Else just wanted to look after her family and had no interest in what was happening in the wider world which always provided the bone of contention between her and Alf. In her own little way Elsie Garnett helped to bring women out the kitchen and into real life.
Devoid of a first name throughout the whole seven series of Sorry!, Mrs Lumsden (played by Barbara Lott) attempted to keep her forty year old son Timothy tied to her apron strings for eternity, frequently at the expense of his own happiness. A gentle sitcom with dark undertones, the show deals with the complex relationship between a mother and a son with echoes of Freudian philosophy. Mrs Lumsden definitely suffered from a severe case of housewife psychosis and a heavy touch of Munchausens by proxy which made it impossible for Timothy to live his own life. Yet sanity eventually prevails in the last ever episode as we finally see Timothy escape his Mum’s tight net and fly away in a hot air balloon accompanied by his repressed love of his life Jennifer.
Failed PR socialite Edina Monsoon had illusions of success as she attempted to break the nineties celebrity jungle. Together with her alcoholic, bulimic best friend and former model Patsy Stone, they go about recapturing their youth in Jennifer Saunders’ cult sitcom Absolutely Fabulous. Meanwhile back at home, Edina’s long suffering daughter Safron has learned from her mother’s mistakes and is an upstanding member of the community and disapproves of her mother’s party lifestyle. The pair could not be more different and while Eddie is out partying, Saffie remains the sensible one with her feet firmly on the ground. This reversal of roles between mother and daughter was something that had never been explored and helped to bring sitcom into the twenty first century.
Our final sitcom Mum and arguably the most recent is also the most in touch with reality. In 2007 the British sitcom was stripped back to its bare essentials as James Corden and Ruth Jones treated us to a modern take on the traditional love story. Embracing and capturing the era of online dating, Gavin and Stacey were two people from different towns who met through a series of work phone conversations and slowly developed a fairytale romance. As we’ve already discovered, the relationship between mums and their sons can sometimes be more complex than most romantic liaisons and Gavin’s relationship with his Mum Pam was no exception. Frequently nicknamed her “little prince,” Pam was always very protective of Gavin and when she heard of his and Stacey’s plans to move to Barry Island, she lost the plot and resorted to making racial slurs against the Welsh. With her obvious flaws, Pam Shipman remains one of the most plausible sitcom characters perfectly portrayed by the great Alison Steadman and I think is one of our finest examples of a great sitcom Mum.
So a very happy Mother’s Day to all the mums out there and remember if you can echo some of the qualities listed in the above examples then you are doing something right. And let’s just hope that you didn’t identify with too many of the flaws! Yet although I’ve just listed my top five sitcom mums, I think you’d agree that nothing compares to the real thing!