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Maggie and Andrew are looking forward to retiring to France when their orphaned grandchildren, who they barely know, become their wards. The children are hostile, peculiar eaters and Maggie resentful of the change in plans. Liz is the somewhat helpful hhousekeeper.
After a brilliant career in exaggerated comedy roles such as Margot Leadbetter and Audrey fforbes-Hamilton, Penelope Keith stretched her acting talents to play a realistic woman in a sitcom with a grimly realistic premise: 'Next of Kin', which ran on BBC1 from May 1995 to February 1997. She was partnered by the equally talented William Gaunt: like Ms Keith, he is a performer who is best known for comedy roles yet is equally adept at drama. 'Next of Kin' featured a premise which American TV programmers would probably have rejected as too morbid.
Maggie and Andrew Prentice are nearing sixty. They have one son, Graham, whom they've not seen in years. Graham developed into a snob and married a woman with radical politics who despised Maggie and Andrew. Consequently, Maggie and Andrew have been completely estranged from their son for more than twenty years. Comfortably middle-class but not wealthy, they're now looking forward to a retirement scheme that involves travel and fine dining.
Suddenly a constable arrives to inform the Prentices that their son and his wife have been killed in a road accident. Maggie and Andrew are now the legal guardians of their three grandchildren: young teen Georgia, Graham Jnr (on the brink of teendom) and little Jake (just starting school). These children are total strangers to Maggie and Andrew, who consider the merits of putting the children into an orphan asylum. Ultimately, they choose to take the children into their home ... realising that their retirement will be put off indefinitely.
The grandchildren have been raised in the mould of their annoying parents. Georgia is a politically-correct little snot, who fancies herself morally superior to everyone who fails to share her inconvenient political views. Georgia favours the socialist National Health Service over privatised physicians ... but then, when she decides to get braces on her teeth, she comes up with a pretentious reason for going to a private orthodontist instead of the NHS clinic ... meaning that Maggie and Andrew will get lumbered with the cost of the braces. Georgia's brother Graham, meanwhile, is on the brink of juvenile delinquency. Youngster Jake is the most annoying character in this series: he tends to be a little too twee, a little too babyish.
'Next of Kin' features extremely realistic situations. When Andrew learns that Graham is bunking off school, he gives him the usual lecture: you've got to apply yourself and get good marks so you can get into a good college and then get a good job. To which Graham replies, very reasonably: 'My dad did all that, and he got killed anyway.'
As happens often in long-running British TV programmes (but very seldom in American ones), the characters in 'Next of Kin' changed and developed over the course of the show's run. The three grandchildren were initially hostile to Maggie and Andrew, but gradually the five of them developed into a real family. Georgia began as a self-righteous little bitch: early on in the relationship, she writes false entries in her diary and then hides it in her room, knowing that the snooping Maggie will find it and read it. (Plausibly, the grandparents have their own faults here.) And yet Georgia gradually modified her extremist personality. In one episode, the Prentices take their grandchildren to the zoo. Georgia spots a tiger, and immediately she belabours the zoo keeper with a lecture about how the tiger should roam free in the wild. The zoo keeper sets her straight, explaining that this particular tiger is old and ill and can't survive in the wild, and anyway his original habitat has now been changed irrevocably by human development. Georgia is too bloody-minded to admit that she was wrong, but you can see that she's rethinking her views...
A subplot in 'Next of Kin' depicted the relationship between sexy Liz (Tracie Bennett), Maggie's daily cleaner, and muscular young builder Tom (Mark Powley), who has been engaged by Andrew to build an extension on the house following the arrival of the three grandchildren. The Liz-Tom subplot was less interesting than the growing relationship between the Prentices and their grandchildren, and these two characters were dropped after the extension was finished.
Remarkably, in spite of its morbid premise, 'Next of Kin' managed to be extremely funny whilst depicting extremely realistic situations. Most enjoyably, there was a total absence of those supposedly heart-warming 'Awwww' moments which render so many Yank TV comedies utterly unwatchable. No talking animals or hand-puppet aliens in this wonderful sitcom ... but some splendid acting and plenty of laughs. I'll rate 'Next of Kin' 9 points out of 10.
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