Let’s get one thing straight about me: I’m not special or unique in any way. I’m of average height, weight, and looks; I live in the suburbs; my vice is watching unhealthy amounts of British television. But there is one way in which I differ from most of my peers, although I can’t take any credit for it: I have five brothers and sisters. Tell anyone these days you come from a family of six kids and they invariably look at you in amazement, doing the math on how any one woman could possibly keep her sanity after buckling six successive kids into and out of car seats.
(The answer to that math is, of course, that I’m old enough to come from a time before car seats were mandated by law. Getting her six kids in the car mainly involved my mother yelling at us to pile haphazardly, and most likely short at least one seat belt, into the back of our boat-like 1970s Oldsmobile, always concluding with a “Hurry up, we’re late!”)
What a pleasure, then, to find that some of my very favorite British programs involve large families. These series vary from romance to crime; sweetly hilarious to darkly disturbing; urban setting to rustic 1930s Corfu, but they are the same in one particular: they prove there is nothing more fun than having a bunch of siblings. Until, that is, you want a bit of privacy, a crack at the bathroom, or, you know, not to be forced into working for the family’s crime syndicate. In my family, at least, we just call the advantages and the drawbacks of a big family “six of one, half a dozen of the other.”
Let’s ease into things with the (relatively) gentle new series The Durrells in Corfu. Starring the unparalleled Keeley Hawes as the very British, very stiff-upper-lip but still great fun, independent and widowed matriarch Louisa Durrell who moves her four-child brood to the Greek island of Corfu just before World War II, this program shows how much a parent with more than kids can be very interested in their kids and their well-being, but still, just because there are so many kids, kind of loses track of what they’re doing on a daily basis. All of Louisa’s children have very strong ideas of their own, from one’s wanting to be a novelist’s to the youngest’s habit of dragging home every animal he can find, but at the end of the day the family looks out for one another even when they’re exhausted from trying to keep up with each other’s exploits. This is an adaptation of the popular memoirs by Gerald Durrell, the first of which was My Family and Other Animals.
Two other large broods are at the focus of two other very different comedy/drama series, Mrs. Brown’s Boys and Shameless. Mrs. Brown’s Boys is an Irish program featuring the (very male) comedian Brendan O’Carroll as the (very female) matriarch Mrs. Agnes Brown, ruler of her household kingdom and five children (or six, depending on whether you’re referring to the characters as portrayed in the books and radio series that predated the television program) and their various spouses and children. Agnes is salt of the earth, decidedly salty, and controlling, but is still an ultimately loving mammy. In my informal research, this seems to be a common mix of attributes in mothers of large families.
In the much darker and urban povertied setting of a Manchester council estate, the series Shameless focuses on Frank Gallagher (David Threlfall), the patriarch of a large family, who largely can’t be bothered to provide for, look after, or even remember the names or ages of most of his children, as he spends most of his time getting and being extremely drunk. Here the kids are the focus: headstrong eldest daughter Fiona (Anne-Marie Duff) who is the de facto head of the household; her various younger siblings, and her friends and love interest (the incomparable James McAvoy). Although that cast of main characters only lasted through the first tw0 seasons of the show’s eventual 11-season run, all of the series focused on the relationships between the Gallagher siblings and their many love interests, spouses, neighbors, and nemeses.
Petty crime may be an aspect of life among the Gallaghers, but actual and horrifying real crime is at the heart of the historical crime drama Peaky Blinders. The Shelby family is, at heart, the five Shelby siblings, led by their brother and crime syndicate boss Tommy Shelby, but a large cast of other relatives fills out the family business, including their ball-busting aunt, the father who abandoned them, various in-laws, and even neighboring gangs to whom the Shelbys are, of course, related. The series is loosely based on an actual gang of criminals that operated in Birmingham, England, during the late 19th and very early 20th centuries.
Two lighter comedy choices round out this list. In Outnumbered, there are only three children, but viewers will find that the three children in this series are confounding enough to make their parents think they are raising a brood of at least six. And then, of course, there is the wonderful Moone Boy, starring David Rawle as Martin Paul Kenny Dalgliesh Moone and Chris O’Dowd as his imaginary friend. Martin spends most of his time hiding from his many older sisters, all of whom treat him with various flavors of loving contempt, all while their parents largely go about their own business. They have enough to do, after all: they’re trying to make a living, their eldest daughter is getting married and giving birth (simultaneously), and they’re still trying to keep their marriage fresh. This series probably comes the closest to showing the massive amounts of good humor and moments of simply “looking away” that are really the most important traits in any big family.