Friday, December 12, 2014

THOUGHTS: Puppy Love (BBC Four; 2014)

In November, the BBC aired the first episode of a new comedy series from two of the minds behind the brilliant Getting On, called Puppy Love. Starring Joanna Scanlan and Vicki Pepperdine, the story is of constant conflicts between the stubborn and self-important Naomi Singh (Pepperdine) and the brash and crude Nana V (Scanlan), with Naomi's prim-and-proper business manner contrasting heavily with the perpetually dodgy dealings of Nana V. Including guest stars including Phil Cornwell (Dead Ringers), Alvin Hall and Tobias Menzies (Rome, Game of Thrones), it's clear it's not been a chuck-on-TV affair and fits perfectly into the typical types of comedy currently shown on BBC Four (such as Detectorists, which finished just before this show broadcast). I think there's a lot to be said for Puppy Love and after watching the fifth episode (of six) today, I felt I had to talk about it.

Joanna Scanlan as Nana V and Vicki Pepperdine as Naomi Singh in 'Puppy Love'
The most striking thing you'll likely first notice about Puppy Love is its racial diversity. It does a reasonable job of showing the growing racial diversity of the UK, with many roles being played by non-white actors. This also goes alongside a fairly bluntly open attitude towards sexual matters, with many jokes about sex, a variety of sexual partners, and even Naomi's straight-forward yet over-descriptive talk about sex with her daughter Jasmine, and I found this refreshing. It's not often that a show basically says it's okay for teenagers to have sex, let alone containing scenes of them being encouraged. Both of these are positive things and it's good the BBC is showing a comedy that contains these aspects.

I'm not sure it is all fun and games, though. Pepperdine is both playing to her strengths but also her own self-typecast role, with Naomi Singh being almost identical to her role in Getting On (they share a writing team, with the addition of Jo Brand), and it has to be said that whilst initially charming, Scanlan's Nana V all too quickly becomes almost unbearable, with the same behaviours repeated again and again - and I can't help but feel she is all too willing to use her own body as the near-literal butt of the jokes. What may work once or twice as a parody quickly becomes tiresome.

There's one aspect I just can't get on board with, and that's the situation of Nana V. Something about it has never sat right with me, even from the start. Nana V is shown as a dodgy and somewhat tone-deaf character (as epitomised by her 'company' motto - "For All Your Dogging Needs", which also works as a double-entendre), but it goes beyond this. She lives in what can only be described as a modified pair of caravans, her ex-husband is housebound due to his weight (and vaguely complicit in the dodgy dealings), she's the adoptive mother of a young man (about 16-17) whose mother is in prison (not to mention his being caught taking drugs), her dog No Name is openly thought to be an illegal breed and not one of her business transactions is legitimate. Her fees are shown to change depending on her appraisal of that person and her dog training class often is paired with a small stall selling goods. It strikes me as being much too close to a number of negative perceptions of non-white groups within the UK, many of which in particular are applied to the various groups of traveller communities in this country.

I don't think that is something the show intends to do, but intent is not always the issue. Nana V is painted as a somewhat tragic figure, one desperate for attention and respect yet stuck in a seemingly never-ending cycle of making things worse for herself. She tries to solve issues through sex, asks for inappropriate favours (e.g. asking a vet to give her a breast examination), and it seems like she is incapable or wholly unwilling to do things by the book. When this is contrasted with her way of life, and the current perceptions of travelling communities, poorer people and those on "benefits" (by that I mean the public perception of someone on benefits, not the reality), I feel like if it isn't adding fuel to the fire, then it is at least dangerously close to leaving the full canisters near the flame.

I will put my hands up and say I'm not talking from a personal investment in this. I could be wrong in my deductions about this character and what she represents. It's just to me it feels like she embodies many stereotypes about marginalised and wrongly-distrusted groups in society, and that the show does little to nothing to change them except try to show her as doing "The Right Thing". The positivity of the show goes hand in hand with the negativity, and it's important to recognise both.

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