Plunkett on TV: Gold's new original sitcom The Cockfields
There’s a moment, less than a minute into Gold’s cracking new comedy The Cockfields, that perfectly captures the essence and appeal of this three-part sitcom.
Simon and Donna (Joe Wilkinson and Diane Morgan) are on the ferry to the Isle of Wight, where Simon will introduce Donna to his mum (Sue Johnston) and stepdad (Bobby Ball) for the first time.
In a scene familiar to anyone with parents of a certain age - in fact, the entire show rings true with anyone with parents of a certain age - Simon’s mum needs help signing into her iPad.
“It’s probably your password,” says Donna, trying to be helpful on the mobile as the ferry chugs its way across the Solent. “What’s your password?”
Which is to say that The Cockfields comes across like a very traditional family sitcom while at the same feeling entirely modern and bang up to date.
Part of that is down to the fact that it is told through the eyes of Simon and Donna during their three days off the south coast to celebrate Simon’s birthday.
Then there’s that magical cast - just when you think it can’t get any better, Nigel Havers and Sarah Parish turn up as Simon’s father and girlfriend.
But really it’s all down to the writing, created and written by Wilkinson and David Earl, who previously teamed up for Sky 1 comedy Rovers (which also featured Sue Johnston and Diane Morgan).
“It’s a family sitcom seen through the eyes of the children and that was something really exciting to me for Gold because it’s the first time we’ve done a show from the late 30s, early 40s viewpoint,” says UKTV’s head of scripted, Pete Thornton.
“Having Joe as a writer-performer is really interesting because you get an authenticity there. A lot of it is based on David and Joe’s real life, experiences that they had with their parents, and what I’m really hoping is that people are going to say ‘Oh, I recognise that!’ It’s important for us to have a premise that feels as universal as possible.”
The Cockfields is also a love letter to the Isle of Wight, where both Wilkinson and Earl have connections, as does executive producer Lucy Lumsden, who spent a lot of her childhood there and whose production company, Yellow Door, makes the show.
“I can’t think of anything that’s been set there before, and you are always looking for an element that sets it apart from other family comedies,” says Lumsden, who previously worked with Wilkinson and Earl on Rovers, which she commissioned when she was at Sky.
“There’s something about that setting that really helps define what it feels like to be trapped with people you adore and who you know won’t be around forever, but who also drive you nuts. I think they hit on something very simple, very clever, and very original.”
A single-camera show with no laughter track directed by Steve Bendelack (Friday Night Dinner, Royle Family), it took three weeks to film with only one day on the Isle of Wight. Not that you would know it, with lots of country walks, sweeping drone shots and the occasional use of CGI to fill in the blanks.
Originally pitched as six episodes set over six days, the three-part series takes place over a long weekend and will air on three consecutive nights on Gold.
“We don’t generally do pilots at UKTV which other broadcasters might do,” says Thornton. “But having three half-hours, which I see as an uber pilot, gives us the chance to market the show properly, get some heft behind it and give it a really good opportunity to bed in.
Thornton hopes the show will fit in nicely alongside Gold’s acquired and classic archive content, while also feeling sufficiently separate and distinct.
“We’re always trying to do things that feel fresh for the channel. Our new shows should feel like they could only have been made this year, or last year, they need to feel current, and that’s why it’s important to make shows where you are coming in from a slightly younger viewpoint.
“There’s a misconception about Gold that everyone who watches it is in their 60s, but it’s actually our next youngest channel after Dave. A lot of the audience are 40-somethings and we are trying to feed that audience.”
There’s no doubt it will chime with anyone whose ever had the joy of introducing a partner to our parents (so most of us, then).
It’s a love letter not just to the Isle of Wight but also to our parents, and all their quirks and idiosyncrasies which we will probably end up repeating whether we like it or not (I’m pretty sure I’ll never keep my toenails in a jar, but who knows?)
“There’s something weirdly refreshing about watching human beings in their natural habitat doing the small stuff,” says Lumsden
“We definitely wanted to have those bittersweet moments of truth. Seen through Joe and Diane’s eyes, it’s an urban view of this very sweet rural pocket of Britain."
And if ever a show was summed up by its theme tune then it’s this one, Belle and Sebastian’s Get Me Away I’m Dying: “Ooh! Get me away from here I'm dying, play me a song to set me free. Nobody writes them like they used to, so it may as well be me.”
The Cockfields airs on Gold on Tuesday 12th, Wednesday 13th, and Thursday 14th November at 10pm