Reality bites

Television - Mike Bullen's version of life at 40 tells only half the story

To get the inevitable question out of the way early: Mike Bullen's Life Begins (9pm, Mondays, ITV1) is no Cold Feet. Nor is Caroline Quentin anything like Helen Baxendale, St Albans like Manchester, or your forties the same as your thirties. Bullen's previous hit took as its subject a generation of comfortably-off thirtysomethings more interested in holding on to its youth than in taking the plunge into the rites and responsibilities of adulthood. Last year, when the cast was dealt the final card of its youth with Rachel's death, the series, and any pretence that the characters were still ingenuous, ended.

The title of this new series suggests that life begins these days at 40: not the good life, as in the old cliche (kids grown up, mortgage nearing its last instalment, whoopee), but real life. In the case of Bullen's heroine Maggie Mee, nee Thornhill, it begins on a family holiday when her husband, in that classic male phrase, announces he is "not happy" - and when a man, God forbid, is unhappy, a man walks out. Maggie, played by Quentin, faces bringing up two children on her own, the challenge of re-entering employment at the age of 39 and the end of her sex life. But watch Maggie rebuild her life - and we can assume she shall, as defeat and a descent into terminal bitterness already look beyond this good-natured series' repertoire.

First, however, comes the examination of the rubble of her life, and of her incompetence. A leaking tap turns into a full-scale flood and Maggie, unable to find the stopcock, has to ask the nearest male youth for help (he thinks he is making a pass at her). At the employment agency she does not know her Quark from her Excel, although she boasts she has played Tomb Raider a few times. She practises her typing, but her exercises end up as Freudian gibberish: "The quack brown fix jumped over the sleazy dad." The best revenge that she can think to take on her errant husband is to melt his Roxy Music CD with a creme brulee torch he gave her for Christmas.

She is not encouraged by the gossipy sympathies proffered by the other mums at the school gate or by the fact that, when her husband returns home to put the kids to bed, he is hailed as a returning hero. Her parents are poor allies. Mother, played by the estimable Anne Reid as a hyper-critic, is convinced that the failure of her daughter's marriage is her daughter's fault, just as she insists that she has overcooked the vegetables. Her father (Frank Finlay) is more sympathetic, but has just been diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

By the end of next week's episode, however, we shall discover that Maggie has undiscovered street-smarts. She can identify her husband's fancy woman by scrutinising a phone bill. She can guilt-trip her best friend into abandoning a dinner party thrown by him and his mistress. Most impressively, she blackmails the local travel agency into giving her a job and then inveigles her way into her younger co-workers' loyalties, all the while running rings around her young male boss, who would fire her if he could. In the clever opening titles, the cast's names are depicted as labels on domestic products (giving a new potency to the phrase "household name"). Quentin's appears on a bottle of detergent. She is the kind of detergent that kills 99 per cent of all household jerks dead.

But Bullen is so in love with Maggie that he skimps on his portrayals of everyone else. She is drawn in minute but uncritical detail. Everyone else is pushed towards caricature. Her allegorical maiden name is the giveaway: "Thornhill" hints at both her prickly resolution and the mini-Everest she must now climb. In contrast, her husband is called Phil Mee, a man defined by his selfish desire for self-fulfilment. It is to Alexander Armstrong's considerable credit that he manages to make Phil at all sympathetic.

What neither he nor the ever excellent Quentin can compensate for is Bullen's wilful failure to examine why their marriage has failed, a mystery that may be the last thing the couple share. That Phil looks a presentable 40 and she is overweight is simply not addressed, save for the briefest of passing jokes in episode two ("You're a round peg in a square hole." "I can lose weight.") and a short, poignant flashback in which Phil struggles to escape her clasp while they're dancing in the kitchen. That the part of Maggie was originally written for the slimmer Sarah Lancashire does not excuse this blind spot in the script's rear-view.

Mike Bullen has been quoted repeating Woody Allen's definition of drama, that "when it bends it's comedy and when it snaps it's tragedy", and that his interest is in exploring the moments before snapping point. The dementedly contracted plots and pratfalls of Cold Feet actually took us nearer to such moments than this leisurely sojourn in comfortable St Albans. Suppressed hysteria should underpin the comedy of romantic failure. Instead, the funny lines Bullen is incapable of not writing are underplayed, as if the director, Catherine Morshead, fears we will rumble that Life Begins is less serious than its subject matter. That is not the problem. The problem is that Bullen, a great writer of ensemble drama, has this time written less than half the story.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times