Monday, May 14, 2012

Guilty pleasure

My parents went on "honeymoon" (a year after they married) on a package holiday to Spain, in 1973 and hated it. They won't talk about it, but it was enough to put them off "abroad" until I was all grown up and forced them to come with me to Rome, many many years later. My father, who is 65 at the end of the month, announced on Saturday that he never intends to go on holiday again as he can't bear "waiting around for trains and planes" and they're quite happy staying at home.

I would never go on a package holiday to Spain either - though it is more due to middle-class snobbishness rather than a general dislike of travel and "foreign things". But I have recently discovered the ITV series Benidorm, which, while revelling in the awfulness of such holidays and the people who go on them, ends up making you like them.

Benidorm feels like a natural inheritor of the British Carry-on films and seaside postcards. It has a regular cast consisting of British stereotypes and eccentrics, lots of rude jokes, class-based humour, bizarre visual jokes and a faintly moralising sentimental ethos. The establishing shots show Benidorm as hideously built-up with miles of brutal-looking tower-blocks dominating the skyline, while the opening credits show Britons at their worst. The series is set in the Solana Hotel, an "all-inclusive" resort which resembles a hospital built in the 1990s, where guests have to wear a yellow-arm-band to get the free food and drinks, and the specially laid-on entertainment largely consists of karaoke in a large hall (self-entertainment in other words). Many of the holiday-makers bring no money with them and never bother to venture out of the hotel grounds, instead preferring to fester by the pool, getting drunk, being unpleasant to one another and eating.

The central "common" family, the Garveys, is headed by leathery-skinned gnome-matriarch Madge, who is never without a cigarette and sits resplendent on her disabled mobility scooter - the punchline being that she can walk perfectly well - but she's on holiday and doesn't see why she should have to use her legs. Madge has never been troubled by a kind thought in her life, and her many daughters have mostly disowned her, except for affable Janice - who is played by Siobhan Finneran who also plays evil O'Brien in Downton Abbey (as well as Rita from cult 80s film Rita, Sue and Bob too!). Janice is married to lazy Mick (League of Gentleman's Steve Pemberton), a typical benefit scrounger so beloved of the tabloids. Like an infestation, the family keep returning back to the Solana year after year, encountering other holiday-recidivists like Donald and Jacqueline (dim swingers), Kate and Martin (disgruntled middle-class couple there by mistake and Kafka-doomed to keep coming back despite their efforts to escape) and delusional overweight quiz champion Geoff and his slow-witted mother/PA Noreen. As the years progress, newer, ever more flamboyant characters emerge.

There is a lot of flabby, aged, wrinkly or otherwise oddly-shaped flesh on display, and while we are encouraged to laugh at the gluttony, petty criminality, idleness and poor taste of the working-classes, nobody comes off well in Benidorm - the "posh" characters are exposed as inauthentic (like Martin's mother played by Una Stubbs), stuck-up (like Kate) or deluded and weak (Martin). The message is that the working-classes may be vulgar, but at least they know how to enjoy themselves with simple pleasures like a burger, a lie-down by a pool or a good singalong.

Similarly, sexuality of any sort is made fun of. There is a stereotypical gay couple called Troy and Gavin (one is fat and camp who uses a black fan with a flourish as a prop, the other is tall and thin and slightly less camp). They are accepted by the other holiday-makers, as are the swingers - who are always genuinely sorry when they inevitably mistake someone as being from their sauna back home or misread an innocent suggestion as a sexual come-on. A gruff transvestite played by Tim Healy, while the butt of visual jokes is reasonably sympathetically treated, and "normal" heterosexual desire is punished - Martin's lust for a con-woman results in him losing his passport and money, while Janice's brief dalliance with a much younger man brings her no happiness (and he ends up locked in the boot of a car).

While there are brief glimpses of Spanish culture and countryside, the series hasn't managed to tempt me to venture onto an EasyJet flight. I'm happy to enjoy Benidorm at a distance.

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