Not Going Out may be too inconsistent to be considered a classic, but there are several episodes which come close, and Series 7’s ‘Lucy’ is certainly one of them. But first, for those who need it, some context: The show’s star and co-creator Lee Mack plays Lee, a stereotypically northern, working class ‘slacker’ who continually lusts after the sarcastic and aspirational Lucy, with whom he shares a London Docklands flat, and we follow his many misguided attempts to impress her.
A broad sitcom, relying on easy wisecracks, puns, thin characterisation, and almost self-effacingly absurd plots, the first few years were a close cousin of contemporaries Miranda and BBC Three’s now-forgotten How Not to Live Your Life, and rarely failed to be traditional, good-natured fun. It’s fluff, but decent fluff, the sort which cantankerous critics can’t stand, and so relaxed about this that it doesn’t even bother to give Lee a permanent job or even tell us his last name.
Even now, fourteen years on, it remains a torch-bearer for the conventional studio audience sitcom, and a tonic for anyone who has failed to find laughs in ‘edgy’, apparently existential fare like the dull and dispiriting Fleabag (and I’ve checked, there aren’t any). Surprisingly though, despite Lee’s attraction to Lucy, the show was never defined by the will-they-won’t-they question which had hung so tantalizingly over Just Good Friends and To the Manor Born (earning both series such mammoth ratings), and barely even bothered to mention it.
Until, that is, this single-scene episode, in which Lee’s clod-hopping pursuit of Lucy reaches an unexpectedly swift conclusion.
Set entirely at the local pub, the episode begins with a nervous Lucy about to attend an interview for a job abroad. She isn’t sure whether to accept it and ruefully reflects how she and Lee aren’t anything more than friends. Lee begins to fret about this and reluctantly admits to neighbour Toby (the ever-wry and reliable Hugh Dennis) that he has fancied Lucy for the previous six years.
He has no intention of telling her, of course, though this may have to change, as the situation apparently becomes urgent: Toby explains that Lucy is not at a job interview at all, but on a date with his wealthy barrister cousin Carl. Apparently, Carl wants to propose marriage, but suspects Lucy is interested in someone else, and Toby has been tasked with finding out for certain before texting him back with the answer. Lee, then, has a decision to make. Over the next few minutes, the pair discuss the promises and pitfalls of marriage, and whether it’s a chance worth taking, as the audience wonders uncertainly if Lee and Lucy will always be Not Going Out.
It makes for a sensitively-written episode. Commendably, the gag-rate doesn’t slip, and neither does the story feel crippled or constrained by its format. Though mostly a two-hander, Mack and Dennis are well-supported by regulars Abigail Cruttenden, as Toby’s snobby, sour and domineering wife Anna (essentially the same role she played in Benidorm a few years previously), and Katy Wix as the dim-witted Daisy (to all intents and purposes, Alice from The Vicar of Dibley). There’s plenty of terrific lines too. Often, with jokes, this show just throws much mud at the walls, but they mostly stick here.
It’s almost thoughtful too. For the first time, Lee contemplates his future and whether he wants to continue as a cynical, irresponsible man-child. His parent’s divorce gives him a good reason for being like this – something which seems obvious in retrospect, but not the sort of character moment this series typically offers.
The whole episode, in fact, is rather more tender than any regular viewer might reasonably expect. Not Going Out is usually fast-paced, all screwball bickering between an American-style stand-up and a sub-Hawskian woman, and rarely even hints at the sort of real-world emotion which ran like a steel rod through Only Fools and Horses or One Foot in the Grave, which makes it refreshing, even downright jarring, when such things are signalled here.
The outcome is perhaps too sudden, with no build-up from earlier episodes, and far more subdued, for example, than the climactic confrontation between Niles and Daphne, in the most achingly inconvenient of circumstances, after seven years of Frasier. Happily, of course, by the end of the episode, church bells peal, though this too seems astonishingly hasty. It also means we never get to see Lee and Lucy track Sam and Diane’s tempestuous courtship in Cheers, still arguably television’s most iconic comedy romance and the one in which all others are immediately compared. An excellent episode, however, to end the first phase of the show.
By this point, Mack wanted to retool it. He had grown increasingly restless with the premise and intended to take inspiration from his current life as a family man and, in particular, Everybody Loves Raymond.
He had even starred in a non-broadcast pilot for a British remake, titled The Smiths, with Catherine Tate (who had also starred in the Not Going Out pilot), in 2013. Consequently, the series was rebirthed as a family sitcom, set five years on, and remains successful.
Remarkably for a show which began life when Tony Blair was still Prime Minister, it will continue to run until at least 2023. Really, at this rate, we’ll still be watching Lee and Lucy when they’re living in assisted living and bickering about whose turn it is to empty the commode. And we still won’t know Lee’s last name!
Written by David Friend