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16 August 2022

Stefan Golaszewski’s Marriage is a stone-cold masterpiece

Nicola Walker and Sean Bean are both marvellous in this realistic, empathetic BBC drama portraying an ordinary, loving couple

By Rachel Cooke

For all that I believe Stefan Golaszewski’s BBC drama Marriage to be a stone-cold masterpiece – it’s Terry and June as written by Harold Pinter, and what isn’t there to like about that? – this doesn’t mean it’s enjoyable, exactly.

Yes, it may be tender and wry and funny; yes, Sean Bean and Nicola Walker give two of the greatest performances of their careers. But it’s also intensely bleak, and sometimes a bit boring, and its strange intimacy has the added side effect of making the viewer feel weirdly self-conscious about her own relationship. God forbid that someone should hear the way you speak to your (in my case) husband in private, however (also in my case) sweetly you may do this. After I watched the second episode, I went upstairs to ask A if he wanted a cup of tea. Such ordinary words – and yet, how odd they sounded.

Golaszewski (Him & Her, Mum) has said that in Marriage he has tried to write about what it is like to be a person, as opposed to a person on television, and that in doing so he has been influenced by – wait for it – Zola, George Eliot, Bach and Stravinsky.

What all this amounts to in effect, I think, is a kind of beautifully repetitive internalised drama: one that we are somehow able to witness and understand courtesy only of his barely-there dialogue, and of the tiniest changes in the expressions of Bean and Walker, who play the characters of Ian and Emma, a couple of 27 years’ standing.

As with Bach, there are variations on themes: jealousy, loneliness, joy, kindness. As with Zola, there is an attention to the physical: warmth, cold, wind, the urgent desire to pee. As with Eliot, there is a moral undertow, one that has to do, perhaps, with loyalty. I’m still thinking about Stravinsky. Maybe it is connected to the rhythms beaten out by a certain breed of modernism.

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Marriage doesn’t have a plot, exactly: this is a case of information withheld and then slowly revealed. When it begins, Ian, who has recently been made redundant, is coming to terms with long and lonely days at home while Emma is out labouring for a posh toddler of a solicitor called Jamie (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), of whom Ian is now wildly jealous. The couple have an adopted daughter, Jessica (Chantelle Alle) – I’m not going to say more about her place in their lives, for the simple reason that I don’t want to spoil this series for a single soul – and Emma has a controlling elderly father, Gerry (James Bolam).

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In essence, we follow their days, sometimes quotidian (Ian has a sudden urge to buy some revitalising shower gel), and sometimes more momentous (Jessica’s new boyfriend comes to dinner, and turns out to be a prick).

As neither Ian nor Emma is much of a talker, the viewer must rely on empathy and observation. What volumes are spoken by the loading of a dishwasher, the watering of hydrangeas, the eating of a takeaway prawn cracker in front of the telly! Disparate emotions mingle like lime added to a pint of lager, embarrassment giving way to sudden pride, fondness shading into massive but unspoken irritation. Like life, all this is beautiful but painful.

It’s wonderfully cast. Bolam gives Gerry a mean-spiritedness that is full of pathos. Lloyd-Hughes deftly suggests Jamie’s entitlement may cover something more feeble (here is a man who likes sugary, yellow-iced cakes more than the Burgundy he swills about in his glass as if it were liquid gold). Walker, of course, is marvellous: flinty, watchful, gauche.

But it’s Bean’s performance that I adore. Oh, how sad men are! How they struggle to talk, and even to love. In his too-long jeans, he’s like some ancient standing stone, worn by the weather and circumstance to the point where no one notices him – save for Emma, who makes a point of kissing him at the bottom of the stairs, on tarmac paths, in the car park at B&Q. When he talks to his cussed father-in-law, he’s still, after all these years, ingratiating – “Hello, young man!” said in the accent of my childhood – and it fairly breaks the heart.

Watch him in this show, if you can bear to, and feel grateful for all of his talent, his skill, his highly particular workaday genius.

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This article appears in the 17 Aug 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Six Months that Changed the World