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by Phil Thornton


Julia Davis is fast becoming one of the best actresses in the country. Her performances with Rob Bryden in Human Remains gave us an early indication of where her head was at; a deeply disturbing and dark abode populated by manipulative femme fatales. This was the premise of Nighty Night where Julia wrote and starred in perhaps one of the nastiest, truly shocking ‘slit-coms’ of all time. Perhaps only Chris Morris in his most misanthropic Blue Jam days came anywhere near the surreal horror of Davis ’s narcissistic, sadistic hairstylist from hell.


However, Series 2 of Nighty Night was something of a let-down, an attempt to push an already brutal concept over the edge towards self-parody. Like Caroline Aherne’s Royle Family which also lost the plot when Denise became a Daily Mail stereotypical prole mum, Davis made the Nighty Night characters so extreme in the second series, that it became silly rather than spooky. Not that either series weren’t funny and exceptionally well acted. Aherne went into melt-down after the deserved success of The Royle Family but it appears that Davis has managed to secure a career as a comedienne of rare virtuosity as she proved in the superb comedy-drama, ‘Fear Of Fanny’.


In this one off feature length special Davis plays the fearsome tv cook, Fanny Craddock, yet another monster to add to her repertoire. It was something of a surprise to see Julia doing ‘straight’ acting, even if her subject was so outrageously over-the-top that it seemed pretty much in keeping with her previous imaginary roles. Fear Of Fanny allowed Davis to display the hidden vulnerability of Craddock’s extrovert personality following her inner and outer turmoil when her long abandoned son re-enters her life.


Craddock is shown to be a snobbish, overbearing, self-absorbed, egotistical, rude, domineering and sometimes cruel bully. But a loveable one. As she ends her life, sat alone, senile and confused in comically applied make-up, eating re-heated nursing home food, she appears to have been given her just deserts. Eating a mouthful of gruel, Davis looks to camera and states, almost apologetically;


‘If I had to do it all again, I’d use a little less fennel.’


Davis should get a Bafta for her performance and hopefully we’ll soon see her in roles that require a bit less slap and a lot more subtlety. Someone else who’s overdone the foundation is Caroline Aherne aka Denise Best (nee Royle). As mentioned previously the once masterly Royle Family sadly became cringeworthy and where once there was a genuine warmth for the downtrodden characters, there appeared to be a bit of snide piss-taking creeping in. Denise wasn’t just an idle, neglectful mum she was borderline abusive, Jim wasn’t just a victim of economic circumstance but a parasitic bum who leeched from his wife.


So, catching up with the gang after seven years was always going to be fraught with danger. In a one-hour special, all the stray plotlines were pieced together; Jim and Barb were still stuck in their ciggies and sofa groove, only the telly had got bigger, much, much bigger. As they have in the past six years or so. Baby David is now 7 years old and Nana was living, bedridden in her daughters and son in law’s living room. This pisses Jim off immensely and the usual minor domestic kick-offs carry on as if the programme has never been away. Oh, Anthony also has a son, though he’s not with Emma anymore and seems not too happy with his new girlfriend. He also wears a suit and is en route to ‘a conference in Milton Keynes .’ Anthony’s so successful that Jim bums fifty quid off him and then celebrates the opportunity of pissing it up the Feathers Wall. Oh and Denise is up the spout again. Now she can neglect two kids. Cheryl is dating dweebs, bikers and orthodox Jews and Joe’s got a neck collar on. Nana’s on her last legs and there’s a touching scene where she puts upon Barbara who’s patiently putting curlers in her hair before she thanks her and tells her she loves her dutiful daughter. 


There are the now regulation Jim and Twiggy dancing scenes and – you guessed it – the heart-rending emotional scenes involving Nana’s impending death. There’s even a Jim’s banjo piece and a Joe song. They really wanted to go out on a bang and just about pulled it off. It was often very heavy handed and overly sentimental, it was also a bit snide in places (Cheryl emptying Nana’s urine bag into the sink then wiping the residue with a tea towel which she left hanging from the drawer). Jim degenerated further into bum territory and Denise was as comatose as ever. The scenes as family and assorted friends rushed to the hozzy to see dying Nana were frankly ridiculous and all in all it was a mess but a fucking funny mess. 


Despite the novelty wearing off years ago, Aherne’s characters with all their faults have remained sympathetic and real. You care about them. You want Denise to be a better mum, you want Jim to be less of a bum, you want Anthony to succeed. After the programme, the likes of Shaun Ryder, Peter Kaye, Noel Gallagher, Johnny Vegas, Paul Heaton, Jimmy McGovern and other professional northerners loved by patronising middle Englanders explained why they loved the programme. Even very posh sounding JK Rowling told us how she was raised in a steel town and had an upbringing very similar to the Royles, where everyone went ‘down the pabb’ and Shameless writer, Paul Abbott popped up to offer his usual sanctimonious anlaysis. Rowling was actually quite perceptive as was, of all people, Richard Madeley. Shaun Ryder looked to be in the grip of extra strong medication.     




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