This Christmas, follow the stars to Jerusalem
It was a cunning move to schedule the debut during the post- Christmas week
ANY series that features the comedic talents of Jennifer Saunders, Joanna Lumley and Dawn French will usually capture my attention, but add to them the likes of Sue Johnston ( The Royle Family ), Pauline McLynn ( Father Ted ) and Maggie Steed ( Pie in the Sky ), having their way with a Saunders script, and the result is wellnigh irresistible.
All play characters in this ensemble piece built around the story of Johnston’s suddenly widowed Sal Vine, set in the West Country town of Clatterford, one of those eccentric, warmhearted British villages we have grown so familiar with and which seem immune to satire.
Things are seen through the eyes of the members of the Women’s Guild presided over by Eileen Pike ( Steed) with magisterial ineptitude (‘‘ Have we ever got one of our speakers to come?’’ or ‘‘ Do we have a back- up speaker?’’ are persistent cries among guild members).
Sal’s life tilts forever when her husband, the town’s somewhat surly and slovenly doctor, dies at his desk.
The scene in which Sal and fellow receptionist at the practice, Tippi Haddem ( McLynn, whose Irish accent is all that remains of the idiot housekeeper she played in Father Ted ), uncover this fact as they play a drunken practical joke on him with a prosthetic arm, is a corker.
Typical Saunders, in fact, mixing pathos and farce with bewildering facility, a skill she gave a thorough workout in Absolutely Fabulous .
Jam and Jerusalem doesn’t match that standard, but few series do. What it does have, however, that Ab Fab lacks, is a star turn by French as Rosie. It’s a dangerous move to play a comic character with mental illness, but French has always thrived on danger, and her Rosie is a triumph, hilarious without being demeaning, and always with that little Saunders touch of pathos.
Lumley is unrecognisable as Delilah Stagg, and Saunders plays the type of huntin’, fishin’ and shootin’ upperclass twit she can do in her sleep, having but a few lines in each episode, but all of them memorable.
Tonight’s, for instance, concerns her son’s rock ( not pop, she corrects her friend) band’s success, which led to a weekend at Madonna’s, where all went well until Sting pulled out his lute.
It was a cunning move by the ABC to schedule the debut of Jam and Jerusalem during the post- Christmas week, usually a period when the television set is best left off; its wry surrealism and humane characters will come as blessed relief from the tripe served up elsewhere.
Stellar line- up: Jennifer Saunders’s wry wit enlivens Jam and Jerusalem