Is the patriarchy as all-powerful as it’s cracked up to be? The Baby Has Landed reviewed

30 November 2019

9:00 AM

30 November 2019

9:00 AM

Anybody who watched the opening episode of The Baby Has Landed (BBC2, Wednesday) might have found themselves wondering if the patriarchy is quite as all-powerful as it’s cracked up to be. The programme follows ‘six families over six life-changing weeks’ as they welcome a new member — and on the whole features women who radiate authority and men who do what they’re told.

The most experienced parents are Nigel and Helen Pierce, first seen embarking on a lengthy quest for shoes as they tried to get their four children under five out of the house so that Helen could go to hospital and have a fifth. As old hands, they passed the time during labour doing crosswords. (‘Breed of hunting dog? You have your contraction and get back to me.’) Afterwards, an off-screen voice asked Nigel why he’d decided to have such a large family — and soon discovered that he hadn’t. Initially, Nigel said, he’d have been happy with no children, but faced with his wife’s highly developed maternal instincts had agreed to two, and then to four, and now to five. ‘Marriage,’ he concluded without apparent irony, ‘is about compromise.’

Meanwhile, in Nottinghamshire, a woman called Sara was encouraging her son-in-law Mo to make sure he attended the birth of his first child, pointing out that if he didn’t ‘I’ll knock you all over that bedroom and hand myself into the police’ — although on a gentler note, she did add that ‘I don’t expect you to be down there looking at stuff’. Luckily Mo, too, had learned the art of compromise. As an Egyptian who’d met his British wife Syler when she was on holiday in his country, he comes from a tradition where the husband’s natal duties consist solely of waiting to hear that the birth has taken place. ‘There is my way in Egypt and your way here,’ he explained, before going off to do it our way here — and, to his credit, good-naturedly.

And such good nature certainly fitted the mood of a programme that was hard to watch without a frankly soppy smile on your face. When the baby was placed in Mo’s arms, he was instantly transformed from looking badly out of his depth to being smitten. We last saw Helen surrounded by all five of her children and plainly revelling in the chaos — even if Nigel appeared to have his head in his hands.

One husband playing an especial blinder on Wednesday was the fabulously attentive Shabazz, whose wife Hermisha was about to have a girl to go with their two boys. Sadly, though, even he blew it when his wife’s labour started — by making the schoolboy error of asking her if she was all right. ‘If you’re going to say, “Are you all right?” many more times,’ she exploded, ‘I’m going to throw a pillow at you.’ And with that Shabazz trotted off to pack the car.

The new comedy drama Upright (Sky Atlantic, Thursday), written by and starring Tim Minchin, seems happy to wear its influences on its sleeve: among them, I’d suggest, Clockwise, any number of road movies, the novels of Minchin’s fellow Western Australian Tim Winton and above all Five Easy Pieces — the 1970 film starring Jack Nicholson as a brilliant pianist turned drifter, who travels home to visit his estranged and dying father. Fortunately from these familiar elements, Minchin has created something that, while it does still feel like a confection, also feels like a very good one — and with an unselfconscious strangeness all its own.

Minchin plays the inaccurately named Lucky, who at the start of the first episode was driving across Australia with his beloved piano on a trailer, periodically receiving messages from someone called Toby imploring him not to ‘fuck this up’. Gradually we found out that Toby is his estranged brother and that the ‘this’ in question was arriving back home in Perth before their mother died. By the time we did, mind you, Lucky was already fucking it up. With 3,000km to go, he’d crashed into a ute belonging to Meg (Milly Alcock), a fantastically foul-mouthed teenage girl. With his car and Meg’s injured arm out of action, Lucky is now driving them both to Perth — as, in the customary way of odd-couple relationships, mutual irritation gives way to reluctant fondness.

After Thursday’s two episodes, we still don’t know the reasons why the pair are so adrift. We do know, however, that Minchin and Alcock are terrific at conveying a sense of being lost in their own lives — and at following the script’s sharp and sudden changes of tone, from desperation to tenderness, flat-out comedy to philosophical rumination. Even so, what really makes the programme is Australia itself, not just the beautifully shot landscapes, but also the arresting snapshots of small-town Outback life in all its irreducible oddness.

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