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In 2010, a new three-part sitcom written by Kevin Cecil and Andy Riley, starring Ruth Jones and Mark Heap was tucked away on BBC4. I spotted it being mentioned in the "You might have missed" section of the Radio Times just after the final part had aired, forgot about it, then remembered after it had left iPlayer. Having tracked it down in pieces but all present on YouTube I finally got to watch this gem of gentle comedy and fell in love with it, dragged my husband over to watch it, and then got hold of a copy of the DVD when it was available, and have now got our 15 year old daughter hooked too. It was the presence of Mark Heap that made me want to see if it was any good, since he'd played my favourite character Brian, the tortured artist in the basement, in both series of C4's comedy Spaced a few years back.
What, you may well ask, is it all about then? Rambling. Specifically a failing rambling (sorry, Mid Bucks Walking) club, and its leader's desperate attempts to win new members and to keep the ones it still has. Mark Heap (also the Lark Rise postie, Tertius in Stardust, and countless other roles) plays club leader Bob, in his trademark neurotic style. He is getting towards the unemployable end of middle age and is worried about losing his job, having already lost his wife to another man. His plans are constantly been frustrated, but you feel that he couldn't be anything other than frustrated anyway so it fits him perfectly.
His 'best' friend Tom ( Steve Edge ) lives in his car and needs looking after since he's not the brightest of chaps. Bob's teenage daughter Hazel ( Gwyneth Keyworth ) rambles with them under duress, fibbing to her friends that she's doing work experience with Stella McCartney. Young marrieds Sophie and Joe (Katherine Parkinson and Stephen Wight ) tag along for relaxation, although it soon becomes clear that all is not rosy for them. They constantly bicker about her work and his ambitions, which are being solely funded by her earnings - one being a barbecue with surround sound and an integrated HD TV: "not to get it would be a false economy!" These disparate (desperate!) characters are the core of the group, and the first episode makes it abundantly clear why so few people want to join in.
However, they do gain two new members along the way - the first is dark horse Christine (Ruth Jones of Gavin & Stacey, Stella etc) who arrives by train having been mysteriously rejected by her former rambling group in Barnstaple, something which becomes a sore point during episode one. She is assessed very early on by Bob as looking like Ranulph Fiennes on HRT, and being a threat to the harmony of the group. Finally Victor ( Joe Tracini ), who is besotted by Hazel, is in her year at college, and will go anywhere and do anything to spend time with her despite her constant and forceful rejections. For instance when he has a sore foot, she throws his boot a long way into the nettles so that he has to trail a very long way behind, just to prove how unsuitable a girlfriend she'd be.
Each half-hour episode features their adventures during different walks, and all are filmed on location in southern England, so you get to enjoy the scenery as well as the banter without the effort. Here's a brief idea of each one:
Episode 1, Walk 1 - Great Missenden to Stokenchurch, 11 1/2 miles, difficulty rating 4.3. In which we meet the group, see some potential new members leave and see what happens when a good pub goes gastro.
Episode 2, Walk 2 - Aldbury Circular Walk, 10 1/2 miles, difficulty rating 5.3. In which there are rights of access issues, and angry farmer, glamping and an almost assassinated fairy.
Episode 3, Walk 3 - Axmouth Harbour to Seatown, 12 1/2 miles, difficulty rating 8.5. In which there is grand mutiny, a burial mound, redundancy and a sudden revelation of true loyalties. And a duel with a giant ice cream cone.
The relationships between the group members are beautifully written, developed and acted. The humour is quirky and intelligently witty, with the occasional bit of slapstick executed with great comic timing (usually involving Tom taking something far too literally). I don't want to add too much as the best thing you can do if this review has got your interest is watch some, either on YouTube or the BBC website which has a page with some clips on it here: www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00t8xm9.
The DVD itself is rated 12 (mild language, sex references and one drug reference), and is just the series with no extras. I bought my copy new from Amazon.
I thoroughly recommend this low-key, involving, gently bonkers comedy, in the hope that it might reach a wider audience - and I also hope that there will be another series one day, even if only another three walks, so that we get to find out what other scrapes they get themselves into.