Abi Morgan’s The Split: finally, a drama in which women are allowed to enjoy their work

Morgan’s women do not wander the lonely tundra after hours, bottle of wine in hand; they have – imagine it! – families, friends, and even lovers.

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Ten minutes into Abi Morgan’s unlikely new drama, The Split (9pm, 24 April) I was all set to give up. My God, the absolute state of the dialogue. “I don’t do circus,” said one of the glamorous-but-tough lawyers around whom the action turns. And then, in case we hadn’t got the message: “I hate clowns.” At this, her unimpressed senior colleague could only shake his head and snarl: “You will litigate, and it will be war.” Where on earth, I wonder, did she come by this stuff? Has she been rifling through the offcuts of an old Dynasty script, or something?

After this, though, a gradual U-turn on my part. The longer I watched, the more compelling I found it. What a relief to be presented with a drama in which women are allowed to enjoy their work, and even to be wildly good at it, without their private lives also being offered up as a total failure. Morgan’s characters do not wander the lonely tundra after hours, bottle of white wine in hand; they have – just imagine it! – families, friends, and even lovers.

But there’s something else at play here, too, and this I like even more. Morgan’s principal interest is not really, as it at first appears, in the world of high-stakes, multi-million-pound divorce, though this is the field in which her characters are stars. Rather, it lies with the difficulties involved in long-term relationships, even those that are outwardly happy: complexities that remain to a large degree unspoken in our culture, which seems to me to be growing ever more absolutist about such matters (when it comes to affairs, for instance, we take a much harder line than, say, my parents’ generation; flexibility is entirely out of the question, even if this might be what is required for a partnership to survive).

Hannah Stern (Nicola Walker), a successful divorce lawyer and a happily married mother of three, has recently left the family firm built up over many years by her mother Ruth Defoe (Deborah Findlay) for one of its rivals, Noble & Hale – a company notable at this point mainly for the fact that her gorgeous, Dutch, ex-fling Christie (Barry Atsma) is also employed there. Naturally, she now finds herself in a tricky situation – and not only because Christie has begun texting her late at night. Ruth and Hannah are fighting for the same ritzy clients, while she and her sister, Nina (Annabel Scholey), who also works at Defoe’s, are now representing opposite sides in a celebrity divorce. What stokes these women’s determination and fierceness? The psychology here annoys me a bit. Why must it have some deep, long-buried cause? Why can’t it simply be a character trait, as it would be if they were men? But it does add a certain richness to the plot.

Thirty years ago, the father of Ruth’s girls went out to buy a newspaper, and never came back – for which reason she always told them their most important relationship was with themselves rather than with any man. Needless to say, this husband and father, Oscar (Anthony Head), is now suddenly back on the scene, Hannah having unaccountably spotted him in a park, as if he were a goldfinch. What grief is he set to cause the Defoes? I hope Morgan will dare to be different – that he will bring them only resolution, and with it new happiness.

I don’t think we need detain ourselves for long on the subject of the BBC’s workmanlike adaptation of Wilkie Collins’s gothic novel The Woman in White (9pm, 22 April). I like watching Jessie Buckley, who plays Marian – one of two half-sisters the young painter, Walter Hartright, has been appointed to teach at their pile in Cumberland – she has such charisma. But Ben Hardy, who plays Hartright, and Olivia Vinall, who plays both Marian’s sister, Laura, and her spooky doppelgänger, Anne Catherick, are so ineffably bland; my mind wanders whenever they appear.

And why this book, now? It has been a while since the last adaptation, in the 1980s, but it would be so good if the BBC occasionally ventured into the 19th century’s wilder, more arcane corners. Why doesn’t it ever bring us Rhoda Broughton or George Gissing? Both wrote gripping novels that are also (dread word, I know, but they really love it down at the BBC) amazingly relevant. 

The Split (BBC One)
The Woman in White (BBC One)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 27 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn ultimatum