TV Review: Mary and Martha | Heading Out | Oscars: The Highlights

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ONCE, I dared to criticise Richard Curtis. Actually, all I did was mention to Bill Nighy that some people reckoned Curtis’s world view was a bit cuddlesome and a tad optimistic – but the tallest member of his repertory company and the one who endearingly still speaks like a Swinging Sixties hep cat flew into a terrific showbizzy rage.

For Nighy, this sneering was highly ungroovy. “Check me out,” he said. “Cynicism and Richard Curtis do not belong in the same sentence.”

You can, I think, criticise Curtis for films like Love Actually which portray a Britain – chocolate-boxy, snow-globey, with the wholly middle-class dilemmas being solved by a triple-ply tearjerking speech at the end – that doesn’t exist. But can you criticise him when he wraps his stories around great, big, laudable causes?

The Girl In The Cafe was a G8 summit romcom in which Nighy tried to get off with a girl young enough to be his daughter (Kelly Macdonald) to help Make Poverty History. Mary And Martha, something of a companion piece, had Brenda Blethyn and Hilary Swank as mothers lobbying governments to do more to beat malaria after the deaths of their sons from the disease.

George, just a boy, had been whisked on an African adventure by Mary (Swank) to get him away from school bullies and computer games back in Eastern Virginia. Twentysomething Ben (Sam Claflin, fondly remembered for playing the most annoying of the White Heat housemates) had been at a loose end in England and went to Africa to teach at an orphanage. Different people but united in their grief, the mums embarked on their campaign. They got so wrapped up in it that their marriages suffered. And at the end: two triple-ply tearjerkers for the price of one.

None of this was surprising. Mary And Martha, as drama, was predictable. Two brilliant actresses did their absolute best to make the piece not seem too much like a polemic (equally affecting, Blethyn was the earth-mother type while Swank got to storm out of her young mums’ group during ­pilates after one discussion too many about who owned the smartest car). You didn’t know when Curtis was going to crank up the emotion; only that it would happen. You were manipulated, but in a good way, or for a good cause, with the coda insisting: “Deaths from malaria can be ended in our lifetime.”

Sue Perkins has almost qualified for that most exclusive of private members’ clubs, The Uncriticisables, with her turns on those state-of-nation cookery shows that I don’t watch. Heading Out, though, is the sort of thing that could get her ­suspended or – any more of that lesbian netball – banned.

Nothing against lesbian netball, you understand, but the silly scene down at the community centre during the middle of a game which turned into a, ahem, musical interlude looked like it belonged in a comedy from 1973 (vintage year, by the way). Come to think of it, the concept of a 40-year-old woman who cannot bring herself to tell her parents she’s gay seems out of date as well. But then, what do I know?

Possibly I was hoping for a sitcom that was a bit more edgy, a bit more American. But we are who we are: we’re British and we do silly, the comedy of embarrassment. Perkins’ Sara is like ­Miranda in sensible shoes, or more sensible shoes. That said, some of the embarrassment gags were quite funny. “I’m waiting for the colour of my face to dip from Sir Alex Ferguson to just a normal raspberry,” said our heroine, who’s a vet, although not a very good one – the type who’ll forget that she’s carrying a dead cat in her bag, indeed takes it to her birthday party. “Why is there a dead cat in your bag?” she was asked. “Oh, I like to swing it round rooms to see how big they are.”

Actually, I liked that one too. Heading Out has got absolutely everyone in it – comedy dependables from The Thick Of It, Green Wing and Drop The Dead Donkey of fond memory, plus lovely Shelley Conn out of Mistresses – and maybe I’ll stick with it. One shouldn’t be too quick to judge.

Seth MacFarlane, host of The Oscars, didn’t have a great night. The winner of the best awards-season joke therefore goes to Stephen Fry at the ­Baftas on the subject of film franchises: “Can you see Zero Dark Thirty when you’ve missed all of the previous 29?” Re MacFarlane, though, I’m afraid I did laugh during his “We Saw Your Boobs” song. Since I was kind(-ish) to Sue Perkins and Richard Curtis I reckon I can sneak that in. I can’t? Oh well…