Modern romance, British style

Times Television Critic

When Welsh swimmer David Davies won a silver medal in the 10-kilometer open-water swim in Beijing, his first thought was not about book deals or product endorsements; all he wanted, he said as he left the water, was a guest spot on “Gavin & Stacey.”

He was referring to the award-winning British show that premieres on BBC America tonight. “Gavin & Stacey” is a very modern yet very old-fashioned sitcom about a sweet girl from Barry, Wales, who falls in love with a nice boy from Essex, England. For American audiences, this means several things -- that closed captioning for the at-times heavily accented dialogue and ready access to the Web for slang translation are highly recommended. Also, some of the inter-U.K. jokes and comedic regional commentary will be lost on the less Anglophile among us.

But none of that matters, or at least it shouldn’t, because “Gavin & Stacey” is a gem of a show -- funny, touching and welcome proof that the romantic comedy can and will survive irony, Botox, Judd Apatow and all the vagaries of the modern age. Written by Ruth Jones and James Corden, who also do stunning turns as the title character’s sidekicks, it serves up nothing more or less fascinating than love, in all its messy, contradictory and ever-lasting forms.

The setup is simple. Gavin Shipman (Mathew Horne) and Stacey West (Joanna Page) meet on the telephone through their respective jobs and, after flirting for six months, decide to get together in London. Despite being in their late 20s, both still live at home -- Gavin with his parents, Stacey with her widowed mother -- and share a sheltered innocence that could easily play as damaged but somehow doesn’t. With her blond pixie looks and chipper voice, Page evokes a young Jane Horrocks, never a bad thing, while Horne seems tender and true -- it may have something to do with his math-teacher hairline. They each arrive in London eager, hopeful and, most important, bolstered by a colorful best friend. All black bob, black leather and unapologetic cleavage, Nessa (Jones) is a symphony of zaftig bad-girl sexiness while Smitty (Corden) is a baby-faced, boorish, boy-man who thinks tasting every beer in the world is an admirable pursuit for a grown-up.


This being London, as opposed to, say, New York, where they would be required to walk through Central Park or buy expensive shoes or something, the four immediately repair to a bar, though the sun swings high above the yardarm, and proceed to drink and smoke and dance and, eventually, grope their way back to the women’s hotel room for a little action. It’s all a bit grubby by American standards -- Nessa and Smitty are quite deliciously grubby, actually -- and that’s what makes it so wonderful. In “Gavin & Stacey” no one lives in a meticulously appointed home that is clearly above their pay grade; the furniture has been sat on, the kitchen table is for actual eating. It’s as hilariously matter-of-fact about Nessa’s teeming sexual history, which seems to involve everyone including the local bus driver and Dodi Fayed and his father, as it is about the absurdity of mass transit security issues, because all of these things are just as real as the other. No more, no less, no angst.

Likewise, none of the characters is honed to geometric proportions by Pilates and plastic surgery. They look like actual people, and when they drink, they get drunk (or pissed, to use the vernacular); when they stay up all night, they look rumpled and tired. What a concept; American television should try it sometime.

In the midst of all these modern mores runs a very old-fashioned love story. The two leads are instantly and unshakeably devoted in a way that fell out of favor with MGM musicals, which lends a poignancy to the madness occurring around them -- Stacey’s fey uncle Bryn (Rob Brydon) discovering Mapquest, Gavin’s mother, Pam (Alison Steadman), attempting Atkins, Nessa just being Nessa. Because nothing is more ridiculous and improbable than falling in love. That two strangers, chock-full of quirks and shortcomings, can somehow meet and mutually decide that they can’t live without each other is insane. And exquisite. And hilarious. And still just about the best thing we humans have going for us.

Just like “Gavin & Stacey.”




‘Gavin & Stacey’


Where: BBC America

When: 8:40 tonight

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)