Peter Kay
The cast of BBC2’s Cradle to Grave, with Peter Kay on the left

This article is a preview from the Spring 2016 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

‘‘My tragedy,” jokes Danny Baker in his memoir Going to Sea in a Sieve, “is that I can offer no downbeat revelations, given that I literally beamed with joy throughout the entire Sixties.” Baker is so insistent on his happiness that it’s difficult not to suspect defensiveness and go on the hunt for hidden traumas. (He predicts journalists will do just that.) But the idea of the brokenhearted clown is a cliché. Its continuing popularity suggests a reluctance to credit the possibility of a lightness without a dark side.

Cradle to Grave, BBC2’s adaptation of Baker’s book, is shot through with the same joy. It is not that there is no sadness, anxiety or even tragedy here. And it is not that such reversals are trivialised when they appear – it’s just that the overwhelming mood, set by Laurie Kynaston as the young Baker, but mostly by Peter Kay as Danny’s father, “Spud”, is one of inexhaustible energy, effervescent joie de vivre, a confidence that everything will be all right.

Some reviewers leapt to the superficially compelling comparison of Only Fools and Horses. In Going to Sea in a Sieve, Baker says he knew a few people who thought John Sullivan’s series was a documentary. The skulduggery Spud is always involved in – dodgy goods lifted from the docks perpetually passing through the house – recalls Del Boy’s antics. Yet, in the end, the contrasts between Del Boy and Spud are more telling than the similarities. Only Fools and Horses, after all, began in 1981, when the shift towards mandatory entrepreneurialism was just beginning, and the working-class life that Cradle to Grave lovingly (but not sentimentally) reconstructs started to become impossible. Spud’s scams supplement his job on the docks, whereas wheeling and dealing is all Del Boy has. What’s more, most of Spud’s schemes work smoothly.

Sadness was only ever one deflated delusion away in Only Fools and Horses. It usually came from the same source that provoked most of the series’ deeply ambivalent laughter: Del Boy’s hubristic attempts to “better” himself, seeking a status he wasn’t born to and couldn’t attain, no matter how much money he made. But if Del Boy couldn’t be a self-made man, what else was he supposed to be? There weren’t too many factories left he could work in. When Del Boy brandished a mobile phone and a Filofax, we were invited to giggle at his pretentiousness and self-importance. Who’s laughing now we’re all tethered to our smartphones? Here as elsewhere, Del Boy turned out to be a somewhat melancholy harbinger of coming trends.

Unlike Del Boy, Spud never sees himself from the shaming and belittling point of view of the bourgeoisie. He is happy and respected at home, at work and in his neighbourhood. Yet if Spud is content, this doesn’t mean he belongs to a complacent or insular world. So far, Cradle To Grave has concentrated on Baker’s teenage life until he leaves school; the next stage in his picaresque journey from docker’s son to record-shop assistant, NME writer, television personality and radio presenter will presumably be dealt with in the second series. But it’s already clear that Baker was able to remain happy because he achieved success at a moment when working-class talent and intelligence were valued on their own terms. This was a time long before the “aspiration” New Labour foisted on working-class people – the myopia of imagining that all anyone could ever want is to become middle class, a pinched and mediocre vision of shopping in Waitrose and emulating David Miliband. As Baker notes in a withering aside in his second volume of memoirs, Going Off Alarming, television has more than played its own oppressive part in restoring the power of “office-bound bores”, with music executives behaving like emperors and “suited money-men sit[ting] in grim judgement on those who create”.

The picaresque form of the series means that Cradle to Grave is not really a sitcom, and not quite a comedy drama either. There are moments of high farce, but episodes aren’t structured around setpiece laughs. In common with Kay’s work, much of the humour comes from a comedy of recognition: phrases, habits and mannerisms that were forgotten are now rediscovered as shared memories. The pleasure of the series depends upon an investment in the characters’ lives that deepens with each episode, with Lucy Speed’s Bet a wry counterweight to Kay’s Spud. In tone and form, the closest comparison may be the American comedian Chris Rock’s Everybody Hates Chris. Both series pay attention to the ways in which family life, work and a teenager’s consciousness interact at a particular historical moment.

Yes, there are the period signifiers that some reviewers focused on. But what makes Cradle to Grave into a challenge to our own moment rather than some dewy-eyed exercise in nostalgia is its unfussy laying out of the conditions that produced Baker’s happiness: the family’s newly acquired council flat with a garden; Spud’s relatively stable job; a vibrant neighbourhood, full of spaces in which people could socialise; the thrill of a music culture at the peak of its powers.

It is only when Spud is forced to take redundancy from the docks that we get any sense that this working-class world is coming to an end. After the redundancy, Spud accepts a job as a security guard, in which his duties involve delivering mail to uppity office workers whom he hasn’t previously had to engage with. When one particularly self-important prig attempts to demean him, Spud bawls him out. But this flash of antagonism precedes an acknowledgement that this kind of work isn’t for him, and he walks out on the job. The series doesn’t dwell on it, but the demise of the docks is freighted with enormous cultural, political and symbolic weight. Canary Wharf and virtual capital will soon move in when the docks close, subduing organised labour en route to establishing its cheerless dominion.

Kay’s other television role this year, Car Share, takes us deep into the featureless terrain of a country in which that dominion is assumed. Kay is much closer to home here than in Cradle to Grave, playing John Redmond, the assistant manager of a supermarket in Greater Manchester. Where Spud is all cockney ebullience, Redmond is gentle Lancastrian wit. The conceit sees him sharing a car journey to and from the supermarket with Kayleigh Kitson (Sian Gibson). As one chainstore and retail park succeeds another out of the car window, the commute to work gives an opportunity for fellowship that is lacking in isolated suburbs and in lives dominated by work. Both John and Kayleigh are on the edge of middle age, single, and the car is full of daydreamy yearnings and unspoken sadnesses. Gibson by no means plays second fiddle to Kay: Kayleigh is a fizzing mix of ditzy vulnerability, loneliness and an optimism that sometimes seems a curse as much as a boon.

The car soundtrack is provided by the fictional Forever FM, a perfectly observed simulation of the kind of radio station for which time begins around 1983 and ends about ten years later. For the most part, the tracks are as bland as the landscape through which the pair drive, but fantasy sequences taking flight from the music (and reminiscent of Dennis Potter) remind us that even the most insipid pop still possesses a transporting power.

Inevitably, there is the tantalising prospect of romance between Kayleigh and John, but that isn’t the most important thing: what’s alluring, for the characters as for us, is the proximity of two people and their worlds in this unexpected intimacy, the shared references alternating with moments of sudden incomprehension. Car Share, like Cradle to Grave – and Kay and Baker’s work in general – pricks the myth of the ordinary. It reminds us that all lives ache with unrealised possibilities, and surrealism is an everyday matter, if you are sensitive enough to tune into it.