Next to plastic surgery and paedophilia, being single, specifically single women, seems to be the subject of which we never tire. Having milked the Bridget Jones phenomenon for all it was worth, our focus has shifted to the pushing-forty divorcees with a couple of kids and a subscription to the local dating agency. Mike Bullen was the first to home in on this relatively unexplored demographic with Life Begins, the recent series starring Caroline Quentin as a dumped mother-of-two.
If you didn't catch it, you will probably have read an article inspired by the outing of this social misfit: the woman who thought she was settled and then - just at the point when she no longer registers on the radars of men or employers - is thrust back into the market place, only this time with the kids in tow. Bullen is skilled at capturing the zeitgeist and his modern heroine (with no small thanks to Quentin) won the nation's hearts. As the credits rolled on the last episode of Life Begins, we knew that a new media phenomenon had been born: Bridget Jones with baggage. And how right we were.
"Bridget Jones with baggage" was how Nicky Taylor, a 38-year-old divorcee and mother of three small children, described herself in the first in a new series of One Life (10.35 pm, 20 April). For those of you who missed the original series, these are one-off, warm and fuzzy documentaries dealing with personal journeys. Highlights of the last series included the story of an alcoholic seen through the eyes of her long-suffering daughter, so evidently someone at the BBC was eager to explore the more poignant side of the divorcee's lot. "We want the lows," you can hear the commissioning editor saying. "New Year's Eve spent alone in front of the TV; the moment she realises she's got to meet the ex's girlfriend; the nerves before she goes on a date, followed by the rejection." It's Life Begins without the glossy production values and the guaranteed shag with the saucy history teacher. And this time the single mum has a widowed mother on the scene, which means they can make the journey together. If it were a film starring Meg Ryan you would give it a miss - but bearing in mind that these are real women we're talking about, it had to be worth a look.
And it turned out that Nicky Taylor was a TV natural. She wasn't quite Caroline Quentin, but she had a self-deprecating, sharp wit and an engaging way of playing to the camera, sometimes even beckoning it with a crooked finger. She smoked and drank and bribed her children with crisps and said "shit" in that charming Hugh Grant style that has become the hallmark of the hopeless, but irresistible, English middle-class trooper. And she was adept at making observations about her situa-tion that must have made the producer's heart leap.
Once or twice the crew could be heard in the background snorting with uncontrollable laughter, and who could blame them? Nicky Taylor is Bridget Jones after she's been through the wringer: somewhat battered, a stone and a half heavier, but every bit as game and funny. She even has a gay friend called Brendon.
However, there was a problem. Yes, we saw Nicky trying to rustle up a New Year's Eve date without success. And struggling to get out of the house at night while her daughter clung to her skirt. And close to tears after she discovered she was going to have to meet the ex's girlfriend. Everything, in short, the commissioning editor could have hoped for (apart from the exploration of the mother-daughter dynamic, as the mother sort of faded out mid-programme). But despite covering all the bases, everything about this programme felt utterly unconvincing.
Right from the opening sequence when Nicky, looming into the camera, tells us that she would like to meet "a small Jewish man, a lawyer would be nice . . . to be honest, anybody", you got the sense that she was working from a script intended for Arabella Weir in a sitcom that never got made. Her night in front of the TV on New Year's Eve seemed not so much desperate as staged for comic effect. A day spent with some former Royal Marines, got up like Private Benjamin, was a pointless exercise designed to make her look cute and give her an opportunity for some Dad's Army gags. If this was real-life documentary, even warm and fuzzy documentary, then so is What Not to Wear.
Watching Nicky Taylor's single journey, the only emotion you could possibly have felt was puzzlement. What does she do for a living? Did she leave or did he leave? Where exactly does she live (we are told the Midlands, but she seems to be in London most of the time)? Is that a housekeeper we see wandering around, or is Nicky really, as she says, stuck at home every night struggling with the ironing? By the end of the programme, all we really know about Nicky is that she has lost nine pounds on the cabbage-soup diet. Then the closing credits roll and suddenly everything becomes clear. Billboard Love was produced and directed by someone way too close to the subject to make it anything other than a slick, surface-skimming and ultimately pointless froth job: a certain Nicky Taylor.
Shane Watson writes for the Sunday Times