British Comedy Guide

May Contain Nuts. Image shows from L to R: Alfie Chaplin (William Chapman), Alice Chaplin (Shirley Henderson), Molly Chaplin (Bebe Cave), David Chaplin (Darren Boyd), James Chaplin (Andrew Byrne). Copyright: Tiger Aspect Productions.

May Contain Nuts (2009)

ITV comedy drama. 2 episodes (1 series) in 2009. Stars Shirley Henderson, Darren Boyd, Elizabeth Berrington, Tony Gardner, Sophie Thompson, Justin Edwards, Bebe Cave and others.

Press Clippings

Using the same denouement measurement, the mess of the ending of May Contain Nuts - after such a brilliant start - showed what a parlous waste of time it had become. The nice parents who cheated to get their daughter into a good school (mother sat an entrance exam as her daughter, below) renounced their snobbishness. The really snobby mother (Elizabeth Berrington, the only compelling actor on screen) got a telling-off for her attitudes. But bizarrely the racism at the heart of the drama was never directly addressed, although those that practised it were shown to be idiots. This satire on competitive middle-class parenting was blunted by a script that descended into dumb farce and screechy over-acting that descended far lower than that.

Tim Teeman, The Times, 19th June 2009

There's a lot of not very good comedy around at the moment. May Contain Nuts (ITV) was also unconvincing. Middle-class monster parents should be a rich seam to mine. But here it's all so overblown, over-the-top, cardboard and cliched that it just becomes a little bit ridiculous. The Chaplins and their chums don't just live in a gated hell-hole and drive monster 4x4s, they're classist and racist and just about everything else-ist. As is the posh school. Whereas the local comprehensive is a model of what education should be all about. I guess I just wasn't surprised by any of it.

Sam Wollaston, The Guardian, 19th June 2009

So much of the enjoyment of television is based on expectation and the willingness to accept something for what it is rather than condemning it for not being something different. I was disappointed by the first part of this comedy-drama about middle-class parents trying to get their children into a good school because it was based on broad comic caricature. But by the time part two came along, I knew exactly what to expect and so it was much easier to enjoy it on its own terms. Of course it is still based on comic caricature, but it dealt with fundamentally serious issues in a breezy way. It may not be a merciless and accurate satire, but it is big-hearted and entertaining.

David Chater, The Times, 18th June 2009

Based upon the novel by John O'Farrell, May Contain Nuts is a light but effective satire upon the middle-class obsession with education.

When it becomes clear that their eldest daughter Molly will never pass the entrance exam to their private school of choice, Alice and David Chaplin resort to extreme measures - Alice will disguise herself as an 11 year old and take the exam for her.

"Nobody notices ugly children," reasons David and Alice is dressed down accordingly, complete with lank hair, thick-framed glasses and stick-on spots. Crucially, for the drama, Shirley Henderson as Alice is actually pretty convincing in the disguise.

Harry Venning, The Stage, 15th June 2009

May Contain Nuts was the best of the crop of new comedies on TV this week: a strong, almost brilliant cast of comedy actors, rather than comedians; a subject that, while having been done before, was given a pleasantly contemporary makeover. It's the story of the adult who goes back to school, as in Vice Versa or Never Been Kissed. In this case, however, it has been tagged onto that subject for mockery, the middle-class obsession with getting their children into private schools. Though have you noticed that nobody ever makes a drama about how awful state education is? I suspect this is because all scriptwriters used to be teachers. Shirley Henderson is the mother who, because she's teeny-weeny and looks like a woodland creature, decides to take her daugh­ter's entrance exam to get into Chelsea Girls' School. The neighbours are an awful crowd of pushy women and tit-wit husbands. There is one funny scene at a sports day where the mothers attach reins to their children and drag them over the finishing line. Overall, though, it isn't very amusing, or as amusing as it ought to be, and that's not the fault of the plotting, the timing or the acting. It's down to the emphasis, its mission statement; it dithers between satire and comedy.

These are not the same thing, and they don't sit together. Satire is a posh spoof and has a short attention span. This series needed to commit to the humour. It's a shame, because you could tell everyone was gagging to go on and make this really hilarious, but it was stopped by the hand-wringing of its own liberal concerns - and that's one of the reasons there's not one sitcom worth a grin on television. The Tristrams are too frightened, too right-on, too even-handed to laugh at much. Laughter itself is suspicious; people might do it for the wrong reasons, might laugh at the wrong things. Laughter is so raucous, aggressive, judgmental. Isn't it much nicer, more acceptable, to smile and clap?

AA Gill, The Times, 14th June 2009

Anyway, from its terrible casting (an exception is made for Elizabeth Berrington's fabulously cartoon-vile uber-mum, Ffion) to its uncomfortable script (in one how-could-this-ever-have-made-the-edit? scene, Boyd's David watches Alice dress up as an 11-year-old and admits he's "really turned on") to its total dislocation from any audience demographic I can think of, May Contain Nuts was fairly disastrous on every conceivable level.

Kathryn Flett, The Observer, 14th June 2009

So much of the enjoyment of television is based on expectation and the willingness to accept something for what it is rather than condemning it for not being something different. I was disappointed by the first part of this comedy-drama about middle-class parents trying to get their children into a good school because it was based on broad comic caricature. But by the time part two came along, I knew exactly what to expect and so it was much easier to enjoy it on its own terms. Of course it is still based on comic caricature, but it dealt with fundamentally serious issues in a breezy way. It may not be a merciless and accurate satire, but it is big-hearted and entertaining.

David Chater, The Times, 13th June 2009

There is a new monster on television. Her name is Ffion and she is glorious. Elizabeth Berrington plays the ultimate in pushy mothers in May Contain Nuts. She will terminate anyone who stands in the way of her daughter's extra tutoring and son's sports day dash (in which she picked him up and pushed him over the line). When another mum objected, a teacher desperately offered "Why don't we say you're all winners?" to the maternal Valkyries.

Tim Teeman, The Times, 12th June 2009

Based on John O'Farrell's novel, May Contain Nuts took an easy target - the desperation of middle-class parents to ensure their little darlings get into their school de choix - and bludgeoned it with the proverbial sledgehammer. The idea was that mum Alice could only ensure mildly dim daughter Molly would get into the snooty college she'd set her heart on if she took the entrance exam herself - cue tiny actress Shirley Henderson disguising herself as a spotty 11-year-old girl and somewhat queasily arousing husband David (a wasted Darren Boyd) in the process. The major problem being it was hard to give two lacrosse sticks whether the daft mare pulled it off or not.

Some major issues of the day were touched on - such as the difficulty of locating running spikes for five-year-olds - but this bunch of self-obsessed boors should have come with an allergy warning.

Keith Watson, Metro, 12th June 2009

No such one-upmanship in May Contain Nuts, ITV's two-part adaptation of the John O'Farrell novel and the final mainstream comedy offering of the night. Oh, who am I kidding? It's Clapham for goodness sake, of course it's competitive. What else do you expect from life in London's most bourgeois suburb? This is Keeping Up Appearances ("don't say what darling, say pardon, we're speaking French") for the New Labour generation. Or should that be New Tory? I've lost track. Talking of Tories, this was pretty funny: one of the families had a "scare-chav" (something to do with a scarecrow; it isn't important) whose face, according to Mum, "looked like a startled child". Cue Dad: "Yes, we modelled it on Cameron." Not Dave, though, their son, Cameron. Ba-boom-chh. Mm. Perhaps you had to be there?

Anyway, in Clapham, it's very important indeed that your child goes to Clapham School for Girls, even if it means dressing up as your daughter to do the exam. Under no circumstances do you want them to end up at Clapham Comprehensive, with all its underage sex, and drugs and, you know, equality otherwise - who knows? - they might end up working street corners in exchange for heroin, or something like that.

And so proceeds ITV's version of what might loosely be termed satire (I'm sure that's what the writers think it is anyway). Except that it's not really satire, is it? There are plenty of wink-wink-nudge-nudge-look-how-silly-modern-parents-are moments but it's all a bit hammy and ornate; there's no bite to speak of. And isn't the whole laughing-at-the-middle-classes-with-their-organic-lollypops-and-vegetarianism a bit predictable now? It's been done. And done, and done...

At any rate, these particular organic lollypop-eaters were far too annoying to warrant their own show, especially Alice (it's not in the name, honest), with all her bubble-wrap popping and wide-eyed whinging, though the other mums were just as bad. My vote goes to Alice's cross-dressing son. At least he's got character. But aside from Dave's fleeting cameo, there wasn't a joke to speak of. Just lots and lots of overacting.

Alice-Azania Jarvis, The Independent, 12th June 2009

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