William is a sweet and melancholy undertaker, conscientiously carrying on the family business of ushering clients out of the world with dignity. Mary is a wise, pragmatic midwife, passionate in her mission of helping mothers bring their babies kicking and screaming into the world.
Two more unlikely mates are hard to imagine, but in the British TV series “William & Mary” (2003-2005) polar opposites attract and stellar actors Martin Clunes and Julie Graham breathe vivid, eccentric life into these two lively lovebirds who, in lesser hands, could easily have amounted to little more than bookend clichés.
Clunes, the versatile, rubber-faced comic actor known to many American fans for his taciturn role in the “Doc Martin” series, brings an air sad resignation to the part of William Shawcross, the widowed father of two spirited daughters (Peta Cornish and Georgina Terry). He’s much rather play bass guitar in his pal’s garage band, The Emerald Dogs, but he feels honor bound to carry on the family funeral home.
Graham, the lovely, gap-toothed actress most recently featured on PBS in the fine post-war espionage series “The Bletchley Circle,” invests Mary Gilcrest with a fiery spirit that often puts her at odds with her bureaucratic bosses and a fierce devotion to the expectant families she nurtures. She’s the wry, divorced mother of two robust sons (Ricci McLeod and Dominick Baron) and the long-suffering daughter of meddling mother Molly (Cheryl Campbell).
After they meet cute through a bumbling dating agency and staunchly resist romance before giving in to an inevitable attraction of opposites, William and Mary endure three six-episode seasons of romantic and domestic ups and downs, some comic and some dramatic. Each episode runs approximately 48 minutes.
Complications arise from the opposite nature of William and Mary’s jobs, from the growing pains of their often-confused children and from their wild, blended family and from the rather eccentric friends, co-workers and family members that circle their cozy domestic nest.
Those colorful supporting players include Paterson Joseph as Reuben, Mary’s long absent ex, a shiftless Caribbean hustler who harbors some jealousy and manages to loop William into some of his get-rich-quick schemes. There’s also Michael Begley as sad-sack handyman Rick, a former boyfriend of Mary’s who through a series of unlikely twists ends up madly in love with Mary’s scatterbrained mum Molly.
The problems are largely human-scaled and episodic – mobsters threatening William over a rival’s funeral arrangements, Mary deciding to set out on her own as a freelance midwife, William’s oldest daughter determined to lose her virginity, intrusions by kids and relatives on William and Mary’s romantic moments – and are usually solved over the course of a few shows.
It’s all very warm-hearted, generally light and thoroughly charming. As is usually the case in British productions, the cast is top-notch and the characters surprisingly multi-layered. But it’s in the easy-going chemistry and finely tuned performances of Clunes and Graham that “William & Mary: The Complete Collection” draws us into this couple’s rowdy, romantic world and thoroughly charms us.
- Dennis King