The quiet, domestic crises of BBC One’s Us

Forget serial killers and corrupt cops, this David Nicholls adaptation focuses on the quotidian yet profound emotional stuff we all have to deal with in our lives. 

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Television drama avoids the quietly domestic and the outwardly humdrum like the plague, and I never know quite why. Serial killers and corrupt cops are all very well, but what about the quotidian yet profound emotional stuff we all have to deal with at some point in our lives? Take, for instance, a long and happy marriage that seems, nevertheless, to be out of steam. Should those involved tie on their aprons and determinedly attempt to reheat the soufflé? Or should they, in pursuit of a second act, leap headfirst into water that may yet turn out to be even icier than that in which they’re currently swimming?

Us, adapted by David Nicholls from his novel of the same name, is on precisely this territory, for which reason I wanted to love it. But though I do, at moments, like it very much – it’s impossible not to like something starring both Saskia Reeves and Tom Hollander – I wish it didn’t come with so many whiffy flashbacks. In a novel, the flashback is a moderately safe device: leave it to the reader to picture the characters in their youth, silly hairstyles or not. On screen, however, there’s always a comic (not to say excruciating) disparity between the actors who play our heroes in maturity, and those whose job it is to reveal what they were like when young. In Us, the junior Connie (Gina Bramhill) and the junior Douglas (Iain de Caestecker) are such woeful stand-ins for Reeves and Hollander respectively, you just want them to evaporate and stop wasting your time.

Oh, well. Let us proceed instead to the present day. In the marriage depicted in Us, it’s Connie who feels trapped: not unhappy, exactly, but unable to imagine living with Douglas forever. She breaks this news to him in bed, and by the time their supermarket delivery arrives the following morning, he’s barely able to look at her. (“Do you accept the substitutes?” asks their driver, a question newly redolent with meaning.) What, though, should they do next? Somehow, they agree that their long-planned Grand Tour of Europe, an adventure to be taken with their teenage son Albie (Tom Taylor), will be their last gasp before Connie’s equally Grand Exit – which is madness, of course, but then again, as we’ve recently learned, the middle classes do cling to their foreign holidays like ivy. Better a furious row in front of the Mona Lisa than no Mona Lisa at all.

It’s highly schematic, from the trip itself – a frying pan in which Connie and Douglas are set to frazzle like two pink prawns, albeit with added garlic – to the fact that their personalities are so wildly different, you wonder how they ever got together (he’s a tie-favouring scientist with Victor Meldrew tendencies; she’s a clog-wearing artist whose temperament is so equable, you can almost smell the lavender oil). But there’s something else here, too – something quite simple and strong, and all the more moving because of it. This is more than the story of marriage. It’s really a piece about all the ways in which men of a certain age and background find it so unspeakably hard to express what’s written on their hearts (if they even know what is written on their hearts).

When, shortly before they caught the Eurostar, Douglas (tenderly and brilliantly played by Hollander) wrote a list of ideas for self-improvement, the better to persuade Connie to stay, I could feel a (gooseberry-sized) lump in my throat. “Never be too tired, or not in the mood,” he typed. “Try new things. Be open-minded.” His words were pitiful by being so true. If I don’t wholly believe in Connie and Douglas as a couple, I recognise this entirely: an ineptitude in the matter of life, and how to live it, that is exhausting and bewildering for those a man loves, and as a result is painful for him, too, even if he cannot always admit this.

Douglas grasps that his everyday cowardice has the potential to destroy his world. But he’s also hidebound, afraid. Can Amsterdam and Rome change this? I haven’t read the book – my best guess is they can – but if this was real life, it would take more than a joint and a margherita to get him to slip his moorings; to dive in with dear Connie, whether for a life together, or apart.

Us 
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 25 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The autumn of discontent

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