Love in a cold climate

Television - Andrew Billen relishes the writing in a drama of gay meets straight

The second episode of Bob and Rose (Mondays, 9pm, ITV1) had our odd couple preparing for a second date. Their first had gone horribly wrong. Bob, forced to take off his shirt after a restaurant spillage, revealed a T-shirt that blazed abroad the legend: "I can't even think straight." Literally uncovered as a gay man, Bob next found his date going horribly right when he had an erection in front of the terrified Rose. Understandably, both wonder what on earth will happen next. And so do we viewers who joined them for the first episode on 10 September, as they silently asked their separate bedroom mirrors if their bums looked big.

Russell T Davies, who wrote the much admired, but much more explicit, Queer as Folk for Channel 4, here examines the myth that gay men can be "reformed" by meeting the right woman. Liberals who decry this as a pernicious fantasy are not only being illiberal, but fly in the face of the occasional fact. Rupert Christiansen, in his excellent short life of Arthur Clough, describes how William George Ward, a camp and predatory homosexual don, quite suddenly got himself a wife and bred a large family. In Davies's own life, a friend who was once "the gayest man on earth" entered middle age madly in love with a wife and with children. As a gay man, Davies "took the piss". As a writer, he saw in this a "chance in a million" opportunity.

Davies has much to say on the subject, yet his story proceeds calmly by means of nuanced scenes, played at a length that enables us to savour how our expectations are being played with. Bob may be a romantic monogamist at heart, but he is no monk, and by the end of the first episode he has "copped off" twice. When, in the second episode, Rose joined him for sex in a train loo, she wondered aloud if this did not make her "practically a gay man". But her prejudices do not go unchallenged. "If I ever need you again it'll be for advice on picking out fabrics," she says, trying to end their affair. "I knew it," he replies, "first sign of trouble and out come the poof jokes." And how true that is, I thought, of television in general, even in a good sitcom such as Will and Grace, whose title and premise Bob and Rose has the misfortune to echo.

Rose is no cliche, either. If she were just another childless woman approaching a certain age, she would settle for the lacklustre Andy, a security guard who is nice enough, when he bothers, but intellectually some rungs further down the evolutionary ladder than she is. She wants a real man, and the real man she finds happens to be gay. Her dilemma exists in contrast to that of Holly, the straight schoolmistress and a colleague of Bob's. Fixated on him, she knows she can never have him, but is determined that no one else should, either. A gooseberry on his dates, she repeatedly sabotages his efforts to be romantic. Bob is easily duped by Holly because, for all the sex miles he has clocked up, he is emotionally naive - much nearer the loser-in-love Vince of Queer as Folk than the brash hero of that series, Stuart.

What is so impressive about this six-part serial is not, however, its subject, its plotting, or even that it has made it on to ITV (although, I note, without a commercial sponsor). What impresses is the craft of its execution. The director, Julian Farino, locates us in a real world in which people cadge fags, exhale mist on cold nights, read Zadie Smith and drink from non-designer coffee beakers. Alan Davies, as Bob, is one of those actors who, the less he does, the more the lens (so long as it pays attention) enjoys him. In contrast, Lesley Sharp, so good in Clocking Off and Great Expectations, acts all the time, her face changing as rapidly as isobars on a computer sequence. She is not a pretty woman, but radiates sexual energy in her every scene. The lead characters are blessed with a superb supporting cast that includes Daniel Ryan as the unapologetic farter Andy, Jessica Stevenson of Spaced as the troubled Holly, and Penelope Wilton as Bob's proselytising mother, worried that her unradical son is not quite gay enough (and he probably isn't).

The real star, however, is Russell Davies's script. It is very witty and very carefully patterned: Bob says his upstairs looks like "Dresden"; later, in homage, Rose uses the same phrase to describe Andy's spare room.

But the dialogue grows out of a familiarity with, and affection for, contemporary culture, from Eminem to country and western. Davies's plots rely not only on mobile phones, but also on mobile phone menus. His characters do not merely watch The Simpsons but can quote from The Itchy and Scratchy Show. Andy is the first character I have ever seen on television to acknowledge that he toils under the burden of recorded but unwatched videotapes. Davies clearly watches a great deal of television himself, and has absorbed what works. He may be the finest new writing talent to grace the box since his namesake Andrew Davies emerged with A Very Peculiar Practice 15 years ago.

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 24 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The war that Bush cannot win