I suspect most people have what you might call a “go-to” TV show. This would be a program that you watch in re-runs, buy as a boxed set, and even forsake date night for. Why? Because in some way, you identify with it on a deeper level. Somehow, the combination of characters, storyline, dialogue, setting and even music come together to hit a cerebral sweet spot.
Such is the case with a quirky British series that, alas, was on for a brief three seasons a few years back but which I recently rediscovered on YouTube — reminding me once again why I love it so much. It’s called Jam & Jerusalem.
It’s called what?
The show takes place in a fictional village called Clatterford, in the county of Devon on England’s south coast. I would use words like “quaint” and “charming”, but they feel canned in the context of this lovely place and its eccentric, endearing inhabitants. The series begins with the main character, Sal Vine (the one in white in the group shot below, played by Sue Johnston), meeting up with the chair of the local ladies’ guild. Sal has so far resisted joining the guild, explaining in the first episode that it’s “just not my scene.”
Later she tells best friend Tip, “Promise me you’ll kill me if I ever relent and join the guild.” Tip replies (with a smirk and an Irish lilt): “I’ll kill ye and I’ll knit ye a coffin.”
Eventually, due to a change in family circumstances, Sal gives in. And so, over 19 episodes, we come to know a motley, lovable crew of characters.
There’s Rosie (played by the one-and-only Dawn French), who has a split personality, the two halves of which (her alter-ego is the nasty Margaret) are often seen verbally duking it out. As an aside, Rosie works in the local cheese factory, and frequently pulls from a coat pocket or rucksack a slab of cheese (“for goodness”) which appears to serve equally well as snack, peace offering and hostess gift.
There’s Delilah, the old village crotchet who plays the dementia card when it suits her (at the pub, mostly) and who apparently was good friends with Adolf Hitler. (I dare you to find Joanna Lumley behind that frazzled grey hair and knitted tam.)
Then there’s Kate, the rather whiny grievance counselor who cries at the mere mention of her late husband (he died five years previously) and can’t make a decision to save her life.
Eileen, the highly flappable guild chair, sheds some light on the show’s name when she tells Sal that the guild is “not all jam and Jerusalem”. Probably fearing that such a title was too odd and English for a North American audience, the show’s producers marketed it here as Clatterford.
My absolute favourite character bar-none is Tash, Sal’s hippie, feminist daughter whose naive self-absorption and lack of ambition is, of course, lost on her but annoyingly evident to everyone around her. I quote:
Sal: “Tash why don’t you tell [brother] James about your new job?”
Tash: “Oh — the drinky, servy, slavery thing. I don’t do that anymore, mum.”
James: “Surprise, surprise.”
Tash: “It was all like ‘Hey, I’ve been waiting over an hour!’ and ‘Me, me, me, me, me!’ and ‘Where’s my pudding?’ You know? Like, I didn’t have any feelings? Or beliefs? I do have, like, human limitations, you know, and it wasn’t like we invited these people to come; they just, like, turn up!”
James: “But they’re paying you.”
Tash: “Oh, so I have to prostitute myself? I’ve got news for you: I cannot be bought. Mum, am I a nihilist or an anarchist?”
Sal: “You’re unemployed, luv.”
It goes without saying that the writing on the show is bloody brilliant. The woman behind it is the incomparable Jennifer Saunders; she also plays a character in the show — and here’s a bit of trivia: her daughter on the show is her real daughter. You might also know Saunders from her role as the wacky, champagne-guzzling Edina (“Sweetie!”) in Absolutely Fabulous.
Interestingly, Saunders moved with her husband and family to a 400-year-old farmhouse in Devon in 2001, a few years before Jam & Jerusalem aired. No doubt her characters and storylines drew from a great deal of personal experience.
Which brings me to why I love the show — among all the other British shows I love, and there are many. What, I ask myself, is it about this one that really stands out for me? Gorgeous setting? Check. Eclectic characters? Check. Great dialogue. Check. Wonderful music (by the sweet-voiced Kate Rusby)? Check.
But it’s more than that. I want to live in Clatterford. I want those people for neighbours. I want to drink in that pub (that’s not really a gauge — I like drinking in most pubs, though the Fountain is an especially lovely spot). And most of all, I want to join the guild.
With that perfect balance of comedy and drama that the Brits do so well — always keeping it real and never rubbing your nose in it — Jam and Jerusalem whisks me away to a kinder, gentler place that, for me, is the perfect (gin and) tonic for whatever ails me.
PS: Since starting on this post, I’ve sadly discovered that BBC WorldWide on YouTube has nixed all freely available Jam & Jerusalem uploads. I’ve nosed around BBC WorldWide a bit and haven’t found them there — if you manage to find them, please post a comment and let me know!