by Joshua Gaskell
By Oliver Refson
Baby Cow Productions for BBC Three
Monday, 13th January 2014*
Uncle is like Moone Boy… on acid!
The uncle of the title is Andy (Nick Helm), a musician-manchild, whom we meet at his lowest ebb: writing a suicide note to a woman called Gwen. Once he’s signed off – ‘I’ve decided to kill myself. Love Andy’ – we follow him to the bathroom for the promised self-destruction, which turns out to be overly stage-managed (by Andy I mean). He gets into a full bath over which he’s suspended a radio on a piece of string; he then texts Gwen, ‘If you still love me call me now. Xxx’ (a less depressed man would surely have normalised the capitalisation of those kisses); and then he turns the radio on. What comes out are the the bathetic strains of ‘Cheeky Song (Touch My Bum)’, alias ‘We Are the Cheeky Girls’, so he retunes to the more appropriately monumental sound of ‘O Soave Fanciulla’ from La Bohème. He then reaches up, scissors in hand, but just before he can snip his life away his phone goes. It’s not Gwen, but the plot, in the guise of Andy’s sister, Sam (Daisy Haggard).
At first he ignores the call and we hear his answer-phone message: ‘Leave a message after the [belch sound],’ which is about on a par with David Brent’s ‘Please leave a massage.’ But Sam persists and Andy eventually answers, excusing the wait with ‘[I was] just watching porn.’ (It’s a sign of his malaise that what most people would need an excuse for, is his actual excuse.) ‘Can you pick up Roly from school for me?’ asks Sam. ‘Who?’ counters Andy. ‘Errol. Your nephew.’ If Andy doesn’t pick him up then Errol will miss football practice. Andy’s first reaction is, ‘So he misses football. Big deal!’ But Sam explains: ‘Yes, it’s a huge deal actually. If he misses football and his dickhead dad finds out, it could ruin the custody case.’ (This exposition is forgivable in a first episode.)
So the programme is playing with and ironising the sense of the word uncle which gives us avuncular, and which a draft addition to the OED currently defines as, ‘One regarded as having the kindly, protective qualities traditionally associated with an uncle; a benevolent adviser, protector, or patron.’ Andy, who greets twelve-year-old Errol (Elliot Speller-Gillott) with the words ‘Oi! Little fucker,’ is decidedly unavuncular. And Errol himself (who is nobody’s fool) recognises this and takes part in the irony. On the way to football, when Andy refers to himself as ‘your uncle,’ Errol smiles. ‘What’s so funny about that?’ asks Andy. Errol decides to test him: ‘What’s my middle name?’ he asks, thereby implicitly setting Andy a challenge of unclehood: to be more kindly, protective etc., and thereby de-ironise the programme’s title. And in case we’re in any doubt about how far Andy has to go in six episodes, he guesses that Errol’s middle name is also Errol, and tells him to boot, ‘I find you incredibly tedious and dull.’
Errol is the kind of kid who subscribes to the ‘Don’t Step on the Cracks’ school of OCD thought, and is therefore not especially bothered when Andy pulls him out of football practice to pursue a missed call from none other than Gwen. (A clash between Andy and Errol’s football-enforcing dad may materialise in a future episode.) The two of them meet Gwen (Sydney Rae White) in a gay strip-club (C-O-X) owned by her cross-dressing father, Val (Con O’Neill). Gwen, we learn, left Andy because he posted a sex-tape of the two of them online for a dare, so he tries to win her back by opportunistically pretending that Errol is his son. ‘I always thought there was something weird,’ says hoodwinked Gwen, ‘like you had half a personality. […] Does he make you want to be a better man?’ So having said that Andy has a full series to learn to avunculise, we do in fact see, in these scenes, a proleptic facsimile (a draft addition, as it were) of his character development, responsibility being the key word. But though the act does earn Andy a quickie, Errol soon spills the beans and Val ejects Andy from the club. At this point we cut (à la Matt Berry) to a brilliant ninety-second music video of a song called ‘Gwen’ (written by Helm and Andy Jones).‡
Helm has said in an interview that ‘[Andy and Errol] learn from each other – it’s all very moral,’ and that ‘[Uncle] feels slightly more like a comedy drama.’ Whilst that makes it sound less enjoyable than it actually is (the episodes, after all, are half an hour long and funny), the final scenes in this first one illustrate what I think Helm meant, which is that though this is a programme about an initially cynical man, it’s not a cynical programme. When Andy finally gets Errol home, Sam tells her brother, ‘You really saved my life today,’ a statement which the viewer knows is true vice versa. And before Andy leaves, Errol goes to him to reveal his middle name. It’s Andrew: ‘I was named after my uncle.’
With the rapport between the two leads working well and one of Helm’s songs due every week, Uncle promises much.
* A pilot, also produced by Baby Cow and with much of its script reworked here, went out as part of Channel 4’s 4Funnies series (Friday 14th December 2012). In it Errol is eleven rather than twelve, and Andy’s flat looks more convincingly depressy.
† ‘Lazy Journalist Scum’ (© Lee & Herring).
‡ Alias ‘O Soave Gwen’. …Is this thing on?