If you think this is a crowded house, try throwing in a dozen servants
All together now: the Hayes family in Kildare
If there was one thing the four houses on Crowded House (RTÉ One, Monday) weren’t, it was crowded. They were all very comfortable-looking three-bed semi-Ds in Cork, Kildare and Dublin. What they had in common was that adult children – the so-called boomerang generation – had returned home to live.
Seven members of the Hayes family, including an adult daughter, her partner and two babies, were living in her parents’ three-bedroom house in Kildare. Does that really count as problematically crowded these days? The McCormacks in Howth: mum, dad and adult daughter? Crowded? Or Esther Woodley and her six-year-old daughter back living with her mum and dad in Clondalkin. Not crowded either.
And the Murray’s home in Cork was roomy enough for son Finn – filmed mostly on his bed – who not only moved himself back in with his mother but then installed his girlfriend too.
Mostly, all the Hayes and Murray parents appeared to get for their generosity was a sullen air of resentment from their adult children who, once back under their roofs, seemed to revert to sulky teens.
The film-maker Brian Hayes had to pull out all the stops to try to make the film fit the clever title, including arty aerial shots of rooftops and bedrooms, abstract close-ups of stuffed storage boxes and staged-looking scenes of people queuing for the bathroom. It was frustrating to watch, because each of the four households had a very interesting story, not necessarily related to accommodation, that was nearly buried under the achingly hip mood music, dropped in at random, and the sombre-toned voiceover giving meaningless soundbites: “440,000 adults live at home with their parents. Almost 100,000 of them are currently unemployed.”
The situations in Cork and Kildare could have happened any time, but two of those interviewed in particular had interesting sign-of-our-times stories. Here’s where the film-maker did some service, putting faces on the impact of the property crash.
Woodley, at 45 years old, was back in her teenage bedroom because her relationship, the property market and her business collapsed, leaving her with a house in deep negative equity in Wexford.
She couldn’t afford to live in it and had to rent it out even though the rent wasn’t covering her interest-only mortgage. Her biggest concern was that as her parents were, like many others during the boom, cosignatories on her mortgage they were liable for her debt. “When you’re pulling someone else down with you, that’s what really, really hurts,” she said.
In Howth, Sinéad McCormack was back with her parents having had to leave the fire-hazard apartment she had bought in Priory Hall. The 31-year-old is in dreadful limbo, made homeless through no fault of her own, and there are enormous financial implications for her too.
Edited differently to give more of the background to each story, and with a major pullback on the indulgent moody shots and random music, Crowded House could have really explored some very interesting family dynamics.
On the same night, and with an even more evocative title, was The Big House (TV3, Monday). Made by the same team – including its affable, engaging presenter, Bryan Murray – that made the excellent social-history series The Tenements , this new series takes the formula of a mix of academic commentary, historical research and role play, and applies it to life in Strokestown Park House, for generations the big house in Roscommon.
The series looks at life below stairs and the staff’s relationship with their employers, which, said Murray, was far from “the friendly, banter-filled, bemused relationship” usually portrayed on screen. So none of the cosy chats in Downton Abbey , then – in Strokestown the servants moved about the estate via tunnels, so that the masters wouldn’t even have to see them
“Here are two things we have a complicated relationship with; the big house and domestic service. Being a servant was regarded as a shameful thing to be, and we burned down a lot of the houses,” said Catriona Crowe of the National Archives.
A further difficulty in attempting to re-create servant life is that, just as they were not to be seen or heard, the lives of maids, butlers and cooks mostly went undocumented. This series had the inspired idea of getting 13 people whose relatives had been in service in Strokestown – some were separated by a single generation: it’s not that long ago, you know – to re-create life below stairs by living and working there for four days. So there’s a real sense of living history about The Big House . It will be interesting to see how the 13 get on in what is shaping up to be a very accessible and watchable history series.
It didn’t augur well that the first lines Stuart (Derek Jacobi) spoke in the new comedy Vicious (UTV, Monday) were screeched in such a high tone that dogs everywhere must have howled. Then he flapped his wrists and flounced around the set, so it wasn’t surprising that when Freddie (Ian McKellen) came on as his partner of nearly 50 years the dialogue was bitchy, bitter and camp.
The set-up is that they are two theatrical old queens, living together in London in a flat, bickering away but loving each other really. But everything about Vicious felt hopelessly old fashioned: not just the ancient gags but also the camp caricatures. If Mr Humphries had minced on straight from the 1970s and his day job in Are You Being Served? , he would have fitted right in.
There were some good lines, delivered with full-on luvvie gusto by McKellen and Jacobi, but between the booming audience laughter after each line and the old-fashioned, mothballed bang off it, it’s a mystery why the two classical-drama greats agreed to do it.
And then there’s Violet (Frances de la Tour), the couple’s eccentric friend, and her rape joke – yes, two words you never want to see used together. It was a running gag that went on for quite some time. But Vicious is so bad, the gay partners so unapologetically caricatures, the jokes so old and the calibre of people involved so good – one of its writers is Gary Janetti, an Emmy-nominated writer and producer behind Family Guy and Will & Grace – that I wonder if it’s some elaborate, subversive meta reflection on how gay men were portrayed over the years in TV sitcoms. Or maybe it is what it is: dreadful.