We get it. You don’t care for James Corden. You think he throws sulphurous eggs at waiters while soiling his big nappy. You suspect that in the dark of the night, once he’s closed the bedroom door in his palace made of ice cream, he cackles like a goblin and pulls off his friendly mask to reveal the grotesque and warty face of a troll. And in a way, it would be difficult to disprove any of this.
But here’s the thing, and here’s what Mammals demonstrates to the satisfaction of the jury: James Corden is a good actor. On his shoulders rests the weight of a six-episode series created by Jez Butterworth, the man who wrote Jerusalem, somehow both the best and the funniest play of all time. The pressure doesn’t appear to weigh heavy on Corden, nor does he look like a mediocre talk-show host trying to recapture former glory; he honestly looks like one of the best actors British television has produced in the last 15 years.
That won’t be news to people who remember that Corden was superb in Gavin And Stacey but we forgot it, didn’t we. In among the egg scandals and the shameless theft of Ricky Gervais material, we forgot that, left to his own devices, Corden can act his socks off. Mammals gives him the chance to run the gamut of emotion, his socks flying off all over the place, as he plays a man betrayed and humiliated by his wife Amandine (Melia Kreiling), the Frenchest woman of all time.
But good Lord, it’s is a strange show. Tom Jones appears in the first episode for – and it is impossible to overstate this – absolutely no reason whatsoever; Sally Hawkins, who plays Lue, sister to Corden’s chef character Jamie, spends most of her time living an imaginary life as Coco Chanel; there is a laughably mad bit involving a colossal whale.
But it’s wonderful. Patchy, yes, but great for being so different. Maverick creative decisions nestle up next to each other, often eliciting little gasps of disbelief. Perhaps Butterworth has been given too much free reign, galloping around like a rich horse, but risk is such an exciting thing to see onscreen it’s easy to forgive.
After a slew of billion-dollar shows about dragons and elves it’s delicious to watch a small human drama (not a comedy drama, whatever its billing might try to tell you) about people breaking down red-eyed in London pubs. Everyone in Mammals is riven with the kind of flaws that plague real people bored with their lot in life.
Mind you, never has anyone created a first series that so shamelessly cries out for a second. Mammals’ ambiguous climax is both a flaw – no resolution – and a blessing – no resolution! – and is likely to anger the kind of people who buy their mushrooms already chopped up. It’s a thrill, in all honesty, to race through a series so singularly unusual. And, if Corden can act this well all the time, he can hurl as many eggs as he likes.
‘Mammals’ is streaming on Prime Video now