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26 February 2020updated 03 Aug 2021 1:11pm

ITV’s Flesh and Blood reminds me that even clichés can be very watchable

Basically, the moment you clap eyes on Imelda Staunton’s Mary, you just know – alert, alert! – she’s the mousey neighbour from hell.

By Rachel Cooke

In Sarah Williams’ drama Flesh and Blood (24 February, 9pm), Imelda Staunton plays a woman called Mary who’s a dab hand with the pinking shears. Mary may, I think, be somewhat familiar to you; she certainly was to me. She’s Barbara Covett in Zoë  Heller’s novel, Notes on a Scandal, or Nora Eldridge in Claire Messud’s The Woman  Upstairs. Basically, the moment you clap eyes on her, you just know – alert, alert! – she’s the mousey neighbour from hell, a timid but icily determined creature who is overly involved with the lives of the seemingly perfect family she watches with binoculars from her kitchen window. When you hear Mary shout “coo-eee!” as she barges in uninvited, you feel vaguely sick – and not only because, inevitably, she’ll be carrying a plate of something sugary she baked earlier (Mary uses an icing bag the way other people use a splatter gun loaded with weedkiller).

What I’m trying to say is that Mary is a  bit of a cliché. But is she also, therefore, a  red herring? Given that you may be planning to binge on Flesh and Blood on catch-up some time very soon, I won’t answer this question. Suffice to say that even clichés can be very watchable, especially when performed by Staunton. While Francesca Annis plays the part of her gorgeous friend and next-door neighbour, Vivien, as if she’s just left a hot yoga class and is in need of an Americano and some smelling salts – floppy is the adjective I’m looking for – Staunton is all repressed energy, a bagatelle ball waiting to be released. Her smile is as intensely sweet as her cakes – and then, in an instant, it’s a dagger, glinting in the sun. And what a lot of sun there is. She and Vivien live on a beach, and you’ve never seen the south coast look so paradisiacal. It’s like California, only with more alcohol and crummier bathrooms.

When Flesh and Blood begins, something terrible has happened (there are blue flashing lights), but we don’t know who it happened to. Its cause, however, seems to be connected to Vivien’s racy new romantic situation. After a year of widowhood, she has fallen in love with a retired surgeon, Mark (Stephen Rea), and her adult children are not happy about this. Her son Jake (Russell Tovey), a divorced personal trainer and – I’m not joking – part-time gigolo, believes Mark is only after her money, and his sisters Helen (Claudie Blakley) and Natalie (Lydia Leonard) soon come to agree with him. For this viewer, their suspicion and possessiveness didn’t seem to be entirely unreasonable, even allowing for their narcissism and self-obsession. Because Mark could not be more weird if he tried.

From where does this weirdness emanate? Alas, it comes not from Williams’ writing, but from the casting of Rea. He’s always like this, isn’t he? It’s as if he’s walked in off the street at the last moment. Every line has the wrong intonation, every gesture seems botched, every look insincere. Any shiftiness he brought to this role seemed to me to be entirely accidental –  either that, or it came from the unnerving sense I had that he might be about to forget his lines.

Still, it cannot be denied that as I watched Flesh and Blood, I was having fun; even as I groaned (“You might like to take this,” says Mark to Vivien at one point, offering her a tranquilliser as she lies in bed in her peignoir) I was transfixed. Sometimes, a dose of nonsense is quite welcome, even if it does come with some pretty hefty stereotyping (in addition to Mary the dried-up pseudo-spinster, Natalie is a mistress whose desperation has her hiding in undergrowth to watch her lover’s wife, and Helen’s obsession with her career has turned her into a borderline alcoholic). Yes, I have to admit to having laughed out loud whenever Mark took Vivien in his arms. The expression on his face when he runs out of Viagra at a crucial moment! It’s as if he’s discovered his gas bill is a bit bigger than expected, or that his favourite socks are in the washing machine. But I was still pleased to be watching a show in which a 70-year-old woman is allowed to have a sudden and rather exciting renaissance in her sex life – however faltering. 

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This article appears in the 26 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The death of privacy