Following a decade of writing cult sitcoms including Whoops Apocalypse and Hot Metal, the writing duo of David Renwick and Andrew Marshall disbanded and at the beginning of the 1990’s, they both penned two new BBC One sitcoms that would achieve mass acclaim and popularity.
With Renwick beginning a decade long success with One Foot in the Grave, Marshall’s family sitcom 2point4 Children immediately struck a chord with audiences of up to 13 million and remained a fixture on the flagship channel for eight years.
The series centres on the Porter family led by the parents mother Bill and father Ben, their two precocious teenagers, Jenny and David and neighbour and family friend Rona whose thrown into the mix. With a familiar concept, title, happy go lucky theme tune and formulaic opening credits, one could be justified in writing the series off as a run-of-the-mill family sitcom.
And yet, much like One Foot in the Grave, scratch the surface and the inclusion of pathos, the dark and surreal made it one of the most subversive prime time sitcoms ever broadcast. The irony of the title, which was the national average family unit at the time, is that the situations the Porters found themselves in were far from average. With plotlines including the regular accidental killing of their neighbour’s pets, addiction to chocolate bars, hacking into Bill Clinton’s email or even believing a vampire lived next door, to name but a few, all sound preposterous in description but succeed in execution. And then there’s the annual Christmas specials which would end on a big budget, sugary sweet musical number.
The series was also renowned for its quirky humour with regular parodies of movies and TV shows that wouldn’t seem out of place in an episode of The Simpsons. In one memorable episode, Ben is kidnapped by his arch nemesis Jake Klinger, played by Roger Lloyd Pack, and is taken to Portmeirion where he is embroiled in a tormenting spoof of The Prisoner and can’t escape.
Aside from the subversive style, 2point4 Children always felt naturalistic thanks to Marshall’s carefully crafted scripts, sharp tongued dialogue and superb cast. Unlike other studio based sitcoms where there’s a clear sense of knowing and playing to the audience, the characters always felt real and never caricatures. The dynamic between the Porters was dysfunctional, but like any family they still cared for each other and this portrayal is far more credible than in other family sitcoms.
The series was also ground- breaking in its depiction of wife and mother Bill; played excellently by Belinda Lang, she’s a well- rounded, hardworking woman who is not defined by her family and is a refreshing departure to previous, scatty sitcom mothers like the ones Wendy Craig played, apart from Butterflies. Subverting stereotypes also applied to the father Ben, who Marshall comments as being the ‘point 4’ of the children due to his childish antics. His jolly and loveable persona is played to perfection by Gary Olsen and makes a change from the stereotypical grumpy, out of touch with the kid’s sitcom fathers we so regularly see. While Rona on paper sounds like a more down to earth Dorien Green, thanks to Julia Hills energetic performance, she is given more depth due to her many struggles including conceiving a child and complex family life. And as for the children; while Jenny, played first by Clare Woodgate and then Clare Buckfield, and David, played by John Pickard, hold the typical sitcom traits of a moody teenage girl and immature teenage boy, the chemistry between them and the parents jelled so profoundly, the family dynamic proved relatable with TV audiences.
Along with a very average house setting and themes of financial concerns, the future and even death, gave the series more strings to its bow and is a far cry from retrospective reviews lamenting it as ‘bland.’ Indeed, while 2point4 Children is regularly lampooned in the same category as other uninspiring family sitcoms such as Not In Front of the Children and My Family, it really deserves comparisons to Butterflies, Bread and Till Death Us Do Part. It can also been seen as a credible precursor to Outnumbered.
Sadly, after eight hugely successful series, in 2000 the cast and crew were struck by a real life tragedy; Gary Olsen, who played the father Ben, died of cancer at the young age of 42. As a result, the 1999 special, The Millennium Experience, would be the Porters final outing.
While 2point4 Children has inevitably dated due to the 90’s setting that seems alien to
contemporary viewers, the themes and exploration of family life still hold resonance, particularly the
regular shouting of the phrase ‘Don’t Slam Your Door!’ Despite what critics say, it stands out as an
experimental prime time sitcom and although it may not receive the positive retrospective comments it
deserves, it is still fondly remembered by viewers who grew up with the daft and bizarre adventures of
the Porter family.
Published on February 6th, 2019. Written by John Collins (August 2015) for Television Heaven.