01 April, 2009

What the Papers Say: "All the Small Things"


Andrew Billen, The Times

If television still made plays, I would have a great idea for one.In a complacent rural community there is this church choir. Its members come together to sing not to worship, but it isn't really about the singing either, it is about the coming together. Then, one day, this pretty young woman joins and she has the voice of an angel. Her soaring notes stoke soaring ambitions in the choirmaster. Soon he has left his dowdy wife for her and is entering the choir in singing competitions that he is intent on winning. The community is divided, his family destroyed, the choir no longer a nice place to meet. And all because of this woman with the voice of an angel is, I reveal in a shocking and macabre late scene, the Devil herself who knows an opportunity when she sees one. It would be a Joanna Trollope meets Dennis Potter's Brimstone and Treacle. The piece would be called, cleverly I think, All the Best Tunes.

Alas, I cannot write this play because Debbie Horsfield came up with most of these elements and used them to write what, if she is not careful, is going to be a dippy primetime serial called All the Small Things. The set up is there, the Derbyshire choir that muddles along with Neil Pearson as the choirmaster Michael, Sarah Lancashire as his wife Esther and a host of minor characters who could have come from The Vicar of Dibley except the BBC has stuck its hand into the barrel of political correctness and plucked out a black guy with learning difficulties, a dwarf, and a son somewhere on what we doctors call the autistic spectrum.

The first 20 minutes of bad singing and cosiness counted among the longest in my professional television watching career but things picked up with the arrival of the angelic-voiced crumpet Layla (Sarah Alexander) whom I shall hereafter refer to as BDG (Badly Dubbed Girl). Suddenly Michael's forgetfulness about his 20th wedding anniversary looks less sitcom cute. His rationalisation for leaving his wife is outrageous: she is throwing herself away on him, the kids, the choir and her Harry Potter novels. She must find herself, and to do so, he must leave.

For about 20 minutes the thing doesn't exactly fizz, but there is carbonisation present. Pearson, as usual, is excellent as a man unable to plumb the depths of his own shallowness and no one, of course, does suffering forbearance better than the great Lancashire. When Michael's new choir is beaten in the singing competition by his own son's rock ensemble and BDG turns out to be a horribly bad loser, we are in line for a good, old-fashioned Richard Curtis ending with Michael getting back with Esther. But the BBC does not do plays, not even sappy ones, so this thing will span out over another five weeks as the Michael v Esther Show with the two of them running rival choirs. My idea, and even the sappy Richard Curtis resolution would have been better.

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Lucy Mangan, The Guardian

All The Small Things (BBC1), the latest offering from Debbie Horsfield, the creator of Making Out, The Riff Raff Element and Cutting It, should be renamed Trouble at t'Choir. Ironing-loving soprano Esther (Sarah Lancashire, still for many of us trailing clouds of the glorious Raquel Wolstenhulme from her late 90s stint in Coronation Street) and her husband Michael (Neil Pearson, who has broken out his almost-northern accent for the occasion) run the local church choir in an unspecified northern town we will call for the duration Much Warbling. The choir is a contentedly amateur outfit, comprising largely people who can be trusted to turn up on time rather than to make a joyful noise, in the same key, to the Lord. Thus it was, is now and shall be evermo ...

But wait. What's this? It's a newcomer, Leila, who is not only blessed with the lissom form of Sarah Alexander (Green Wing, Coupling) but, as a rather startling impromptu audition in the aisle reveals, a voice that makes Kathleen Ferrier sound like someone kicking a rusty bucket down the street. Hope and happiness break out over Michael's face as he envisages the hours of aural pleasure she will give him. The same emotions drain rapidly from the viewer's face as she realises that this means 60 minutes of watching an actor mime, guppy-like, to Haydn's Creation. Such are the perils of choir-based drama. Esther, a much nicer woman, smiles contentedly. Among the older, wiser wives in the choir stalls there is the faint but unmistakable sounds of bosoms being shifted in preparation for battle.

Leila's in and, of course, Esther is out. Within minutes Michael has performed a volte-face that I imagine had Pearson sitting at home sifting vainly through the script in search of his missing motivation, crying "How ... ? Where ... ? What the ... !?", and gone from devoted family man to lambasting his wife for being too predictable ("When was the last time you bought a new perfume?"), to moving out. He is then free to succumb to Leila's charms, which he duly does. He does not notice, alas, that although her eyes are beautiful, they are also heavily tinged with madness.

Though her friends, neighbours and their bosoms rally round, Esther must now cope with life on her own. One of the children, Kyle, suffers from Broadbrush Asperger's Symptoms and only really loves music. So, after dropping a single bitter tear over the ironing, Esther gets to work forming a band for him, and enters them in the same music festival as the choir. They win, which unleashes Leila's inner nutjob, and she goes crawling over the seated rows to tear their throats out.

After the competition - and, in the privacy of his own home, I suspect, another scream of agony from Pearson - Michael rounds on his wife (who sang offstage in the band), accusing her of seeking the limelight and attempting to destroy his life, liberty and happiness. "So be it," he intones darkly, the Julius Caesar of Much Warbling. "From now on - we are in Direct Competition!"

All The Small Things occasionally showed signs of thickening into a nourishing soup - a lovely scene between Pearson and Lancashire in the bedroom here, a subtle evocation of the dark side of ambition and the advantages of amateurism there, and a turn by Roy Barraclough as the vicar just for the fun of it. But then it would become rapidly diluted by watery nonsense. Things may improve next week. At the very least, the trailers promise that Clifford, the choir's simpleton, will get to sing. As he is played by Clive Rowe, this holds no guppy terrors, only delight.

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Tom Sutcliffe, The Independent

There are few things quite as sickly as an ostentatiously happy marriage, and the one you got at the beginning of All the Small Things was so smugly cheerful that the Radio Times should have stapled a waterproof bag alongside Tuesday's programme details. Esther and Michael, we discover, are celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary, an occasion marked by a surprise chorale of "Nobody Does It Better", arranged by Esther with the help of the choir that Michael runs. And when she finds out that he hasn't got anything to offer in return for this heartwarming gesture, she doesn't pout or get cross, she dissolves into affectionately scandalised giggles and they have a play fight that ends in bed. Even when she disagrees with him she does it while snuggling up to him and staring adoringly into his eyes. Curiously, her children don't make the loud retching noises with which my own teenagers greet any display of parental affection, but perhaps after 20 years of this syrupy stuff they've had time to get used to it.

Fortunately, this being a Debbie Horsfield drama, you know it couldn't last for long. Debbie Horsfield does relationship angst, and rivalry complicated by relationship angst, so barely 10 minutes had passed before Layla was beamed into the drama, played by Sarah Alexander with those sexy humanoid cat's eyes and a celestial voice that, judging from the weird lip-sync, was being transmitted from her home planet. "I should warn you, I'm very slow," she purred suggestively, after Michael unceremoniously bumped Esther from her solo spot to give it to Layla. "I need a lot of rehearsal." She got it and next thing you knew Michael was standing moodily in the marital bedroom, having a go at Esther for liking cocoa and Harry Potter. "When was the last time you travelled, or learnt a new skill or brought a new perfume? When do you ever step outside your comfort zone?"

Do we have a suspicion of where we're headed to from here? I rather think we do, don't we? Poor dumped Esther is going to blossom and Michael is going to be punished, although the speed with which Horsfield had the worm turn was dizzying, as if the drama's storyboard had come out of a double-page spread from a Bunty comic. Determined to bring her withdrawn (possibly autistic) son out of his shell, Esther set up a choir of her own, roped in her pony-tailed neighbour (who, I'm guessing, will declare his adoration some time around episode three) and entered the local music competition. And no sooner had Michael turned to Layla and said, "Oh my angel... I think I can visualise that trophy on my bedside table tonight" than Esther's scratch chorus had brought the crowd to its feet with a version of Blink-182's "All the Small Things" that was heart-warming, uplifting, life-affirming and a number of other unsettling adjectives. And, wouldn't you know it, the backstage tussle as Layla tried to pull the plugs on their amplification accidentally brought up a spotlight on Esther, shyly trying to lurk in the shadows. Some of the singing was quite fun, but dear Lord you paid a heavy price to get to it.

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Overnights: 4.6m viewers (20% share)

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BBC Press pack

Debbie Horsfield interview, Daily Telegraph

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