Hebburn (Episode 1)

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Finding a British sitcom (or comedy for that matter) to like which doesn’t Jack Whitehall in it is fairly difficult. That man has a very good agent. But over the past few weeks BBC2 have been putting a lot of effort into promoting Hebburn, a ‘northern’ family comedy. The trailer, unfortunately seemed to only have one joke, the fact that Hebburn sounds like Heaven, and that’s funny because “it’s grim up North”.

I was intrigued regardless, mainly because it also had Vic Reeves in it, and I am such a fanboy/sheep that I watched the series of ‘I’m A Celebrity’ that he was in, as well as the episode of one of Gordon Ramsey’s cooking shows where Ramsey kicked off at Bob Mortimer for coming to his restaurant and ordering a fried egg.

So, as the show was starting, BBC2’s voiceover man told us we were about to visit Hebburn, but it was funny because it sounds like heaven but “it’s grim up North”.  I wasn’t sure I’d last the program if they leaned too heavily on this joke, but it was actually the lazy voiceover people using the joke, the show itself, although practically obsessed with death (especially the hilarious Gran).

The main character, Jack, is a writer from the North East who now lives in Manchester with his girlfriend, Sarah. But she’s not his girlfriend, after a drunken night in Las Vegas they’re now husband and wife. The couple have come to visit his family, with the intention of breaking the news gently to them, as well as introducing Sarah to rest of the family for the first time.

Practically the first conversation we witness associates Hebburn with death,  one of Jack’s first lines is “This isn’t Newcastle, it’s Hebburn, where dreams come to die.” Anyway more death talk from Gran, it is revealed that Sarah is Jewish, cue Vic Reeves bacon sandwich being thrown in the bin and some regular cobs becoming bagels via an apple corer. It’s all very funny, quite broad comedy. Gina McKee is fantastic as Jack’s mother, and Vic Reeves (or Jim Moir as he’s credited) is a wonderfully inappropriate dad.

There’s trouble on the horizon however, Reeves’ character has a bad heart, which means that Jack is going to have to visit every weekend to help convert the house into three bedrooms. It’s seems a contrived way of keeping these characters together, but it’s dealt with sensitively and Jack’s decision to help his father is a touching moment.

It’s hard not to like something that feels so biographical, sharing a character name (Jack), home (Manchester) and occupation (writer) would probably have been enough. Never mind (nearly) universal experience of introducing a new girlfriend to your family. And the father with heart issues is something I know a little about.

The plot quickly moves on the from the awkward comedy of the house, to the awkward comedy of the pub. Which culminates in a brilliant set piece which had me crying with laughter. I won’t spoil it, but there’s a lot more talk of death.

It’s rare for a mainstream comedy to have such a morbid theme, I’m unsure how Mrs Brown’s Boys, for example, would handle the subject. I’ve seen (mercifully) few episodes of the sitcom, so I have no idea if they have covered death and how they did it.

If Hebburn can keep the high level it set with it’s first episode over a couple of series (or even one) it could easily stand next to Phoenix Nights or the Royle Family as great ‘Northern’ comedy. Keeping the show fresh might be a challenge, with many one note side characters who could quickly become stale. A bit of reading around the internet suggests that Sarah’s parents will be making an appearance at some point, which might shake things up a bit.

A very funny first episode, with some great characters that you care about instantly. You’ll cry with laughter, and I’m willing to bet that by the end of the series we’ll be crying over a main character’s death. Very cheery.