‘Gavin & Stacey’: Love and Lust, in an English Manner
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
“Gavin & Stacey,” the new, sitcom-ish series that makes its premiere tonight on BBC America, has been enjoying some advance buzz because, like “The Office” before it, NBC has picked it up for an American makeover.
Don’t expect a program of the caliber of the BBC’s “The Office,” however, let alone an actor as immediately compelling as Ricky Gervais, who created it. But “Gavin & Stacey” — a cult hit in Britain and a surprise winner of two prestigious BAFTA awards — does grow on you, particularly as you move further away from the mushy, starry-eyed center occupied by its titular lovers, Gavin (Mathew Horne) and Stacey (Joanna Page), and closer to their respective best friends, Smithy (James Corden) and Nessa (Ruth Jones), the funniest and most idiosyncratic characters in the cast. Could this be because the actors playing them also write the scripts? Maybe. But if so, it works.
Presumably, one reason NBC was attracted to this show is its British version of a red state-blue state divide. Gavin is from Essex, which is close enough to London to feel as if it might vaguely belong to it; Stacey is from Barry, a small seaside resort in Wales — part of the United Kingdom, but also another country with its own culture and language. Given that it only takes a few hours to drive from Essex to Barry, NBC will have to figure out how to translate this onto a larger American canvas involving planes rather than pokey Euro-cars and trains. The likely plan is that the American Gavin — trim, dark-haired, and somewhat straitlaced — will live in New Jersey, which seems like a good fit, while Stacey — a slightly too-sweet blonde with a history of calling off hasty marriage arrangements (five in all thus far) — will hail from the deep South.
The pilot episode begins six months after 28-year-old Gavin and 26-year-old Stacey have first met — though only on the phone, over which they speak to each other on a business basis from their respective offices. During those months, each has grown to like the sound of the other’s voice, enough to exchange photographs and arrange for a date in London, about which both of them, not to mention their families, are highly excited. Each brings a chaperone. For Gavin, it’s his best friend Smithy, a tubby binge drinker who could be played by Andy Richter with no trouble at all. For Stacey, it’s Nessa, an only slightly less substantial woman of 40 or so who dresses like an off-duty dominatrix. Though she now works in a slot-machine arcade, she counts among her former boyfriends (or at least one-night stands) Dodi al-Fayed and a former deputy prime minister.
All four meet in central London. Gavin and Stacey fall for each other immediately, while Smithy and Nessa glance at each other with undisguised disdain. Smithy, who was hoping Stacey’s friend would resemble something out of Maxim, can barely bring himself to look at the corpulent, tattooed, chain-smoking Nessa.
But while the two sweethearts gaze at each other in old-fashioned adoration, Nessa and Smithy, aided by profuse quantities of alcohol and tobacco, soon begin to warm to each other, and all four eventually end up in the same hotel suite, with burgeoning love in one corner and noisy lust in the other. Although his night with Nessa, who has a brutally straightforward approach to lovemaking, leaves Smithy worried he may need to visit a doctor, the two first dates can only be considered a resounding success.
Not that Nessa is the slightest bit sentimental about it. There’s a scene in Joseph Heller’s novel “Catch-22” in which a group of soldiers discusses a comrade’s dazzling success with the opposite sex. “Yeah, but he treats women like s—,” one of the men objects. “Anyone can get a girl like that.” Nessa seems to have adopted the same strategy with men, and with similarly spectacular results.
“So I’ll give you a ring,” Smithy tells her awkwardly as she and Stacey get ready to board a bus back to Wales.
“Why?” she asks.
“Well, you know …”
“Get a life, Smithy,” she replies contemptuously, and then climbs aboard while he gawps in amazement.
Relations between Gavin and Stacey remain considerably more romantic in tone. Their love for each other, with the occasional hiccup, grows by the day, and within an episode or two, plans are already being made for a wedding. Their families are less excited about this.
Gavin’s parents — Pamela (Alison Steadman) and Mick (Larry Lamb) — are fairly traditional sitcom figures while remaining both amusing and believable. Mick, an even-tempered businessman who’s very proud of his son, spends more time on the golf course than his wife realizes (a secret he shares with Gavin). Pamela, slightly hysterical but loving, spends an inordinate amount of time on the sofa with wet tea bags on her eyes, continually bemoaning the failure of Pilates, the Atkins Diet, and other reputed cure-alls for her spreading figure.
Stacey’s situation is more unusual. Her father is dead, leaving her in the charge of her mother, Gwen (Melanie Walters), and uncle, Bryn (Rob Brydon), a full-blown Welsh eccentric (though, like 80% of the population of Wales, he can’t speak Welsh), who lives across the street and acts as a surrogate father. A confirmed and peculiar bachelor with an uncomprehending fetish for technology, Bryn’s comic character is a little on the broad side, but amusing nonetheless. He’s one more reason to tune in to this BBC original before NBC serves up its homegrown version.