The 50 best TV shows of 2020: No 8 – This Country

Three lots of six episodes and one special: 280 minutes, in mockumentary format, of some of the most tender, densely written, hysterically funny television you are ever likely to see. It was created by siblings Daisy May and Charlie Cooper, and follows the tiny trials and tribulations that dance comically atop the underlying tragedies of early twentysomething cousins Kerry (Daisy May) and Lee “Kurtan” Mucklowe (Charlie) in the small village somewhere between Swindon (reachable if you plan and prepare carefully enough) and Bristol, which ranks in the Mucklowe mind somewhere between Sodom and Gomorrah.

“Spanner-handed” Kerry is a dedicated self-mythologiser who hangs out with year 7s to maintain the necessary sense of superiority it requires. Kurtan is a perilous few per cent brighter than she and, in the first series especially, it is his occasional, fleeting feeling that life might somewhere, somehow be something you could control, rather than a series of disappointing events inflicted on you, that cuts the comedy with heartbreak. Elsewhere, it is Kerry’s naked need to be loved by her worthless father, Martin, that undoes you. It is This Country’s great gift to get you crying with laughter one moment, and then too stunned with grief to shed a single tear the other. If you don’t believe me, watch Kerry’s birthday episode. You will never look at a Soda Stream again without weeping.

The series ran from 2017 to 2020, writing an overlooked and underserved demographic entire – that of Britain’s rural poor – within the broadcast equivalent of Jane Austen’s two square inches of ivory. I can’t think of another example of the pastoral non-idyll being portrayed in such unforgiving and tender detail.

Its tight focus and the sense of suffocation (open countryside setting notwithstanding) that attends village life is reflected and bolstered by This Country’s small, virtually unchanging cast – a large proportion of which is made up of the Coopers’ friends and family. There are the Mucklowe cousins played by the siblings, of course, their friend – no matter how hard they tried to avoid him – Michael “Slugs” Slugette (Michael Sleggs, the Coopers’ real-life best friend, whose untimely death at the age of 33 they then wrote into the beginning of the third series), the terrifying Mandy Harris (Ashley MacGuire) and her forcible tattooing of unfortunate villagers, local difficulty Len Clifton (the creators’ uncle, Trevor Cooper), Martin (“He’s a peeper!”), played by the Coopers’ real father, Paul Cooper, Kerry’s unseen mother, Sue (whose rasping shouts from upstairs are voiced by Daisy May) and, of course, the Rev Francis Seaton.

Seaton is the beloved, though they and he hardly know it, vicar (played by Paul Chahidi). To him falls the task of trying to instil spiritual grace in Kerry and Kurtan while also trying to expand their horizons on the earthly plane. He’s a very patient man, the vicar. In the final moments of the very final episode, he gets his reward. Or at least the faintest whisper of a suggestion of a hint of one. The Coopers work their little piece of ivory with the finest brushstrokes right to the end.

An unpaid £6 dairy bill, “fox twins: in the woods, grudges, broken bedsteads, pyramid and get-rich-quick schemes (we pause to mourn the misguided purchase by Kerry, seized with visions of owning her own pillow-stuffing business, of an alpaca from Gumtree – “Physically, my largest mistake”), driving lessons, dead animals (“Another life snuffed out by that oaf,” says Kurtan remembering in the wake of the season three parish chickens disaster the late Tamagotchi he once also left in Kerry’s care), steam fairs, Screwfix catalogues and scarecrow festivals make up the lives of the Mucklowes.

Via such quotidian-slash-bizarre fare their creators deliver the truth about the degree of self-delusion and dramatisation it takes to get through life, the casual cruelties we inflict and the exquisite kindnesses too. This Country never descends into parody, never punches down despite the vulnerabilities of the characters and their world, never hits a false note. It is done with such love, such care, such singularity of vision that the artistry would take your breath away, if the laughter and the tears hadn’t done so long before.