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British wit is served with sense of place

`Clatterford,' set in a small town, has an `Ab Fab' pedigree and a sense of humor that is sharper than gentle.

March 09, 2007|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

"Clatterford" comes from the pen of Jennifer Saunders, best known here as the dissolute Edina of "Absolutely Fabulous." It concerns a women's club in a semirural small town and is something of an all-star show as regards British comedians of a certain age and a little younger than that: "Ab Fab" co-creator Dawn French is here, as is Saunders' old costar Joanna Lumley, alongside Sally Phillips ("Smack the Pony"), Sue Johnston ("The Royle Family"), Pauline McLynn ("Father Ted") and Saunders herself.

Kate Rusby's rendition of the Kinks' "The Village Green Preservation Society," a paean to the small, good things of a disappearing age, sets the affectionate, somewhat elegiac tone for the series, which premieres tonight on BBC America. Saunders' inspiration for the show was living with her family in Devon, and one might call the series, whose humor is something sharper than gentle but nothing at all like the acid "Ab Fab," a kind of fantasia on place.

Place -- which has become as homogenized in American television as it has on the American continent, to the point that is accepted that there is somewhere in Canada that can stand for anywhere in the United States -- is in a sense the cornerstone of British drama and comedy alike. The obsessions of Henry Higgins are not particular to him alone: In a nation whose cities each boast a repertoire of native accents that may vary from neighborhood to neighborhood and from class to class, difference continues to matter -- culturally if not politically -- in a way it does not matter, or is not supposed to matter, here. However permeable the old separations may have actually become in the United Kingdom, they remain essential to the way the nation pictures itself. Stretched to extremes, this is the stuff of "Little Britain," but it informs most everything they show us.

If there is something vaguely unlikely about the range of women who make up the Clatterford Women's Guild -- from the multiple-personality character played by French to the posh countrywoman played by Saunders -- there is a music in the diversity of voices that makes the series enjoyable to watch quite apart from whatever comic high jinks the characters get up to. Most of those seem to have to do with marking out bits of territory in a place without much territory to mark.

As usual with small-town comedies, from those of Preston Sturges to that of Andy Griffith, and certainly not forgetting such Ealing Studios classics as "Whiskey Galore!" and "The Titfield Thunderbolt," "Clatterford" is peopled with characters as stalwart as they are silly, with Johnston's widowed nurse practitioner the anomalous but structurally necessary voice of proportion and common sense.



Where: BBC America

When: 10 to 10:30 tonight

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)

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