Shag-pile drama

Television - Andrew Billen loses the plot . . . but finds he can't forget <em>In a Land of Plenty</e

In art, obscurity is not a crime, but it can be irritating. BBC2's prestige-chasing new serial, In a Land of Plenty (Wednesdays, 9pm), began in a highly irritating manner by boasting about its own difficulty.

At first, all we saw was a wall. Rippled, dimpled, magnolia. Then a hand caressing it. The soundtrack chanted something mystical. The screen dimmed and lit up again on a young woman sitting sad-eyed in a bathroom, surrounded by candles. (There are so many candles in bath scenes on TV these days that I wish I had shares in Price's.) "You have to make sense of it all by yourself," she told us unhelpfully. Before we knew it, a wan young man, washing his hands in slow motion, was asking us: "Where do I begin?" He came up with an incantation of something that sounded like "rumber-rumber". This would not have been my answer.

Rumber-rumber was not a meaningless gambit, however. The next scene was of a period couple dancing the rumba in the hallway of a stately home. Although the woman was soon teasing us again - "What's all this about, Charles?" - a plot hove into view. Charles, the owner of Freeman Engineering, had just bought this house, with the intention that he and his wife, Mary, should have sex in each of its 28 rooms and raise the resulting family. We were getting somewhere.

In fact, In a Land of Plenty is not so hard to follow - particularly, I imagine, if you have read the Tim Pears novel on which it is based, or if you have the current Radio Times, which contains a helpful guide. Shaun Dingwall, who plays the narrator figure, James, explains: "A great deal happens over the course of ten episodes, but you can boil it down to a few simple elements. A boy loves his mother; a boy loses his mother. He blames his father and can't get over it." Who said we had to make sense of it all by ourselves?

We read that, in ten 50-minute episodes covering 40 years from 1956, we will observe the fortunes of the Freeman family and their servants. Presumably, the obscurantism deliberately underlines the impossibility of the task. To whose story should we be attending? In episode one, the camera seems to search for a point of view. By episode two, James, the second of Charles and Mary's three sons, has taken on the role. He retreats behind the lens of his mother's camera, and there is a suggestion that the withdrawal is a result of his having, as an infant, observed his parents rehearse Freud's primal act in the bathroom, Mary's toes rhythmically hitting the rubber ducks on the side of the bath. James becomes even more the voyeur after his ambition to be a soccer star is thwarted by a severe injury sustained on the school football pitch. What else is a lad to do but take an unhealthy interest in wall textures?

There are drawbacks in having the dreamy James supply our default view of the Freemans. He does not seem interested in politics or history, despite a heavy-handed little scene in episode two, in which the housekeeper, Edna, explains to her daughter: "They [the Freemans] give us the money and we do things for them." We glimpse the 1966 World Cup and a cinema newsreel of Apollo 11, but there are none of the awkward "let's get in the miners' strike" scenes in which Our Friends in the North specialised.

Although the name "Freeman" is suggestive thematically, the only issue of emancipation that has been touched on so far is the repression of Mary. Initially excited by all the dancing and the 28-room sex, she soon becomes bored with being a wife. Banned from the kitchen by her housekeeper, and from rearing her own children by their nanny, Mary expresses her frustration in colourful denunciations of her husband, Charles ("You horrible, ridiculous man"), fancifully erratic parenting and sub-Plathian poetry. In her search for a richer inner life, her ally is James.

The result is that a certain cultural snobbishness presides. Charles, mocked for his platitudinous conservatism, is given no credit for building up his business. When his eldest son proudly lectures his classmates on Freeman Engineering's history, they ridicule him on our behalf. Yet Charles, played by the stolid Robert Pugh, puts up with much from Mary: the only trouble with Helen McCrory's otherwise excellent performance is that it makes us forgive her too readily. Were we allowed to see things from Charles's perspective, In a Land of Plenty might tell the story of economic plenty being squandered in favour of a cult of emotional authenticity.

This is not the only blind spot of the series. It also suffers from both humourlessness and pretension. Together, these faults force a first-rate cast, including some fine child actors, into excessively stylised performances. The series owes a considerable debt to Terence Davies's Distant Voices, Still Lives. And yet, days after seeing the first two episodes on tape, I cannot get them out of my head. As a drama about memory, In a Land of Plenty has the distinct merit of being memorable itself.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London Evening Standard

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 15 January 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Dotcoms will rise again