BBC Two’s new sitcom Hebburn features chavvy slappers, incontinent pensioners and a scene of copious vomiting. It’s like Little Britain never went away...
Ot at least that’s the fate the show COULD have had, were it not for the immense affection that seeps through every scene. The characters who populate the very real Tyneside town where this is based are warm and three-dimensional, even if they do have some cartoonish traits, giving Hebburn a likability that should keep people watching.
The fondness for the people and the town are not entirely surprising as this is where writer Jason Cook grew up, and the plot is loosely based on his own story of marrying a smart, middle-class Jewish girl and introducing her to his loving, slightly odd, and less sophisticated family.
The outsider, Sarah is eager to impress her new family, who in turn pull out all the stops – however misguided – to impress her. New mum-in-law Pauline, played with beautiful comic timing by the classy Gina McKee, whips out the bread rolls and an apple corer to improvise some bagels. McKee – playing as fussy a character as even the most stereotypical Jewish mum – will surely turn out to be the cornerstone of this show, ably supported by Jim Moir (aka Vic Reeves) as an excellent Everydad, dealing with life with gentle good humour.
There was a lot to establish in this first episode. As well as lead character Jack’s immediate family – the aforementioned plus ‘tart with a heart’ sister Vicki (Lisa McGrillis) and his aged gran on a countdown to death – we are introduced to a motley supporting crew, all with history with Jack and his kin. At times the script was heavy on this exposition, leaving a rather cramped final scene in the pub to deal with all the sitcommy business, but this is a character-led piece, so setting them up is key.
Yet there were laughs throughout, as Cook teased his home town with a mixture of mockery and pride, like you might josh your best friend. Cook himself plays one of the town idiots, a proto-Del Boy type called Ramsey... which is quite confusing for stand-up fans as comedian Chris Ramsey plays Jack, the character based on Cook.
Ramsay treats the role a subdued version of his matey stand-up persona, for he needs to be restrained as the madness whirls around him, while his comic sensibilities help him deliver a few wry comments on the town directed as much to the audience as they are to Sarah.
As an authentic comedy with a heart about two very different families coming together across the width of the country (we’ve yet to meet Sarah’s side from Manchester) because of the relationship between their offspring, Hebburn is a Northern Gavin & Stacey. Indeed, it was co-produced by the same company, Baby Cow. As templates go, it’s not a bad one, but Hebburn also has a charm of its own that could make it another sleeper hit for the BBC.