This is how to grow old gracefully
Here's hoping for a third series of this fascinating and understated drama
It's inconsiderate of me to keep writing about things just as they end - but then, nothing really does end any more, does it? It's always out there somewhere, on YouTube, or some distant digital channel. Sensitive Skin, the second series of which finished on Tuesday, is a show that seems both well-suited to, and in desperate need of, this endless afterlife: for all its nods to fashionable 21st-century mores, it has a curiously timeless quality, and for all that it has been acclaimed by the critics, it sneaked on to our screens with the minimum of fuss. So I predict that its afterlife will be especially satisfying and that this, in turn, will encourage the BBC to commission a third series from the writer/director Hugo Blick. It's one of the most intriguing dramas - I refuse to call it a sitcom - that I've seen for years. I can't, unlike some, claim it as a masterpiece; it's too flawed and patchy for that. But it is completely fascinating and weird.
To recap: Davina Jackson (Joanna Lumley) is a glamorous and mildly bohemian sixtysomething who has a part-time job in a London art gallery. In series one, she was married to Al (Denis Lawson), a newspaper columnist, and they lived in a stark Clerkenwell loft that he likened to a maximum-security prison. Al died of a heart attack in episode six, and series two has followed Davina as she has grieved and tried to make a life without him. I miss Al, and I think the series missed him, too; there were certainly fewer jokes. But his loss set Davina afloat on strange new waters (an appropriate analogy, as she moved to a Chelsea houseboat). Davina is the still, if not entirely calm, centre of this drama, and around her bob characters who either seem to be going mad (her brother-in-law Roger, who now languishes in prison for a fraud he was not clever enough to have carried out), or are delicious grotesques (Sue Shortstop, a militant post-feminist played by Maureen Lipman).
Lots of things set Sensitive Skin apart. Chief among them is its tone, which is dry, but also quiet and elliptical, as if Blick would rather die than do something so vulgar as try to capture his audience's attention. I read one review in which it was described as being like "Butterflies shot through the prism of Ingmar Bergman". The critic was attempting to be disparaging (people love to sneer at Carla Lane's Seventies comedy), but it's a neat summary. Like Butterflies, Sensitive Skin is melancholic and about middle age; and like the late Bergman, Blick has a fondness for lingering camerawork and watercolour skies. The other joy is that it is crammed with winning performances: Jean Marsh, Diana Quick, Patrick Malahide, Nicholas Jones . . . the last time I saw this many British character actors in one place on BBC Television, I was in the sixth form. I hope none of them will take it the wrong way if I say that it's deeply satisfying to see people with wrinkles being given all the best lines.
The final episode began with another sudden death: Davina was talking to her ageing fashion designer neighbour, Lizzie (Jean Marsh), when she suddenly jumped into the Thames. One minute Lizzie was describing how she could never love a man "who wore pale tan kid shoes that had those little brass bars on top and no socks"; the next, she was an upturned parasol, the arms of her tent-like dress moving like they hadn't even when it was fashionable. As is Blick's way, she was despatched with the minimum of fuss. It took a while for Davina to cry; the tears finally flowed as she visited Roger in the nick and he risked a strip search - "They'll think you're trying to pass me heroin" - to comfort her. Lumley's performance has been especially lauded but, for me, she's the weak link. Is she deliberately underacting, or is she simply no good? I'm edging toward the latter view. Sensitive Skin is, above all else, about middle-class self-absorption; but no one else is so self-absorbed that their expression never changes and their voice never rises above a feathery murmur.
Pick of the week
4 August, 9pm, BBC1
Drama with psychic ex-prisoner.
Jamie at Home
7 August, 8pm, Channel 4
Hero or deeply annoying? Jamie Oliver is back and on about veg.
Malcolm and Barbara: Love's Farewell
8 August, 9pm, ITV1
Controversial doc about last days of an Alzheimer's patient.