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7 October 2020updated 03 Aug 2021 12:47pm

The cheap, soapy tricks of BBC One’s Life

Mike Bartlett's new series is both mystifyingly bad and bewilderingly addictive. 

By Rachel Cooke

In the second episode of Life (from 29 September, 9pm), Mike Bartlett’s mystifyingly bad and yet bewilderingly addictive new series – the two things are, of course, quite possibly related – there was an extended scene in which Gail (Alison Steadman), bruised by the revelation that her pig of a husband Henry (Peter Davison) had once had an affair, danced wildly at some awful black-tie do. Up went the arms, back went the head, and it was great – putting me in mind of Sebastián Lelio’s wondrous film Gloria (the original Chilean version, not the crummy American remake), in which something very similar happens. When a middle-aged woman dances with abandon, at ease with her body and unbothered by what any onlooker might think, it is, to me, just about the best, most liberated, most moving sight in the world.

Gail, however, is not really liberated. Not yet. A prisoner in her marriage, she will only be released when Henry dies, quite soon, of pancreatic cancer. (Tick tock, tick tock – do get on with it, Henry.) But like every character in Life, she’s also shackled by Bartlett’s seemingly shaky hold on human psychology. If Dr Foster, the show to which this one is tangentially connected (the link is Victoria Hamilton’s Belle, a recovering alcoholic divorcee who has borrowed Nicola Sturgeon’s wardrobe for the week), is about the loopiest suburban melodrama ever made, at least there was a certain manic consistency in the bad behaviour on display. Here, though, the cast is chaotic and confused, bursting out of character like barbecued sausages from their skins, hurling bombshell after bombshell across a gleaming kitchen counter.

It’s so improbably crammed with incident: already, we’ve had a birth, a death, a suicide attempt, a diagnosis of terminal illness, at least one affair (the prospect of a second hangs in the air, like cheap scent at a party), and the appearance of a ghost. No, I didn’t put that last one in to test you. Kelly (Rachael Stirling), is an actual apparition – apparently she came to a sticky end on an escalator – whose widower David (Adrian Lester), a university lecturer and born-again Christian, continues to chat to over his morning latte, though he’s also racked with guilt, having briefly snogged one of his students, Saira (Saira Choudhry). Life? This is putting it mildly, I would say. The Victorian conversion in Manchester where most of the characters live brings to mind the Book of Job, and all the John Lewis cushions in the world cannot disguise it.

But we must get back to Gail and Henry. Part of the problem with Life, aside from the feeling that its commissioning involved an awful lot of box-ticking, is that theirs is the only fully involving storyline. This is down not only to Steadman, but also to Davison, whose performance as Henry is horrifyingly accurate. Yes, this is a man who likes to shout the word “Cummerbund!” pre-party, and who follows his admission to his wife that he had an affair with the words, “Anyway, shall we?”, directing her inside for a glass of champagne. He is, ostensibly, a caricature, a cliché of middle-class, middle-aged northern manhood. But since all of us know a Henry (bad luck), we also know that the bluff and boorish exterior – the horrible urge to make fun of his wife in public – usually conceals something altogether more pathetic beneath: an insecure, frightened little boy.

Somehow, Davison gets to this – and it makes Gail’s plight all the more poignant. Her dawning realisation that she may have wasted her life on the so-called companionship of Henry (“He’s fun, honestly!”) isn’t a simple awakening, because, however angry she might be, pity is still strong in her. I doubt she knew charity was part of the deal when they first met; but she does now. Is this storyline enough to save the series from its own badness? Are Davison and Steadman? Probably not. Yet I sense I’ll go on watching. It may be the times. It may be that I am losing my mind. Or it may be that Bartlett’s cheap, soapy tricks are a good deal slicker and more professional than they appear at first sight.

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This article appears in the 07 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Long Covid