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Brenda is the deputy manager of a factory canteen and, along with manager Tony, manages a team of largely women, all with their own little idiosyncracies. There is always some drama going on, ranging from pregnancy to a lack of pregnancy; from a daughter's wedding to cancer, yet through it all, they always manage to pull together and laugh through it all. On top of all this, Bren has to put up with her mad mother, who is a nymphomaniac, lives in a trailer and thinks she has friends in high places, and Philippa, the human resources bod who tries her hardest to persuade the team to mix outside of work team, despite much resistance. Tony and Brenda are obviously made for each other - but will they ever get together?
Brenda is played by Victoria Wood, who is also responsible for writing and co-producing the show. Brenda is probably the most 'ordinary' character and, although she does have some funny lines, much of the comedy is left to the others, while she attempts to channel them in the right direction. I really admire Victoria Wood for doing this - she could easily have made her role much more entertaining, stealing the limelight from all her co-actors, but she chooses to almost take a back seat. That doesn't mean she doesn't have much screen-time - she probably has the most of all the characters - but the highlights are always left to someone else. Nevertheless, she does have some stunning facial expressions that speak volumes - particularly when she is propositioned by a member of the Royal Family!
My favourite character and the absolute highlight of the show for me is Brenda's mother, Petula, played by Julie Walters. Made up to look older than she is (the series was televised from 1998-2000 when Walters would have been in her late forties, much the same age as Victoria Wood), she isn't a member of the team, but frequently calls in to see Brenda. Despite this, her relations with her daughter are strained - Petula has never been much of a mother to Brenda and is often a major source of embarrassment, particularly when she has an affair with a teenager. She also farts profusely, seemingly without realising it! Walters is superb in the role, able to deliver the oddest of lines with a straight face, and I would go as far as to say that without her, the series would not have been anywhere near as funny.
There's a whole host of other familiar faces, most of whom appear to have been in Coronation Street or Emmerdale at one point or another. I love Shobna Gulati as Anita and Maxine Peake as Twinkle. Anita is simple, to say the least, never gets a joke and cries at the drop of a hat. Twinkle is crude, thinks Anita is mad ('you're mad, you!') and hates having to spend all her time with 'the oldies'. Both are excllent in their roles, but Maxine Peake probably stands out the most because of her crude humour. Then there is Jean and Dolly, played by Anne Reid and Thelma Barlow. They are best friends, but always run each other down. I particularly enjoy watching Thelma Barlow - to me, she will always be Mavis from Coronation Street, and I get a real kick out of watching her in a comic role.
The other major characters are Andrew Dunn as Tony, Duncan Preston as handyman Stan and Celia Imrie as Philippa. Tony and Stan are probably the least interesting characters to me - Tony is another 'sensible' type and so doesn't have all that many funny lines and Stan is a bit obsessive about his cleaning and kitchen equipment. They fit nicely into the team, but don't really stand out for me. Celia Imrie plays Philippa and is great as a rather proper lady who just wants to make everyone happy - this is a great role and one that highlights the difference between the classes, without being patronising. There are also a host of guest appearances from well-known actors such as Dame Thora Hird and Jack Smethurst (Love Thy Neighbour).
There are just six episodes in this first series and, like all good sitcoms, it does take a couple of episodes to warm up. There are a number of running jokes that get funnier the more times they are heard and as we become accustomed to the characters and all their little foibles. Brenda, for example, often gets words wrong - Harrogate instead of surrogate for example, and Petula's frequent reference to her (non-existent) relationship with famous people - such as Sacha Distel and Richard Clayderman. Each episode has a theme - a Christmas party, a visit by the Royal Family, a riot when Petula has an affair with a teenager - yet the themes are really not all that important, because the emphasis is very much on the characters and how they interact with each other. This is why the series gets better as it goes on - the audience needs time to warm to the characters because the stories alone aren't funny enough to carry the show.
Each show is set in the same location - the canteen kitchen and occasionally the canteen eating area. This could get very boring, but it doesn't - I think because it forces the viewer to concentrate on the characters, the mainstay of the sitcom. For me, this is a sign of the quality of the show - like some of the best sitcoms, there are no fancy settings, just good plain acting and humourous writing.
I don't think there is very much to dislike about the series - the humour is generally non-offensive if you don't mind the odd mention of sex, thrush, nipples, bras and arseholes! It probably isn't ideal for very young children - but then I doubt they would be interested. I am slightly disappointed by the theme music - written by Victoria Wood, it sounds like something that would have been piped into supermarkets in the seventies - but that really is a minor criticism. There aren't any extras, which is a shame - I'm sure Victoria Wood has given interviews about the show and how it came about and I would have been interested to see them.
I was abroad when this show was first televised and, probably because it is still relatively new (about ten years old), it doesn't seem to be re-run very regularly. If it were, I would be less likely to want to buy the DVD. However, as it is, I am more than willing to add it to my collection. And I'm looking forward to seeing the next (and final) series, which has a few more episodes - hooray. I recommend this DVD to anyone who likes well-written British sitcoms - it perhaps isn't as well-known as it should be, but it is definitely worth a watch - just remember it takes a couple of episodes to grow on you. Recommended.
The DVD is available from play.com for £6.99, although it is probably worth looking at the series 1 and 2 boxset, currrently available for £8.99.
Running time: 172 minutes