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12 June 2023

BBC One’s Best Interests captures the horror of parental grief

Michael Sheen and Sharon Horgan are magnificent as the father and mother of an unconscious disabled child.

By Rachel Cooke

When does Jack Thorne sleep? When does he eat? Right now, he has plays on at both the National Theatre (The Motive and the Cue, about John Gielgud’s 1964 Broadway production of Hamlet starring Richard Burton), and the Donmar Warehouse (When Winston Went to War with the Wireless, about Churchill and the BBC); a new series, Best Interests, beginning on BBC One, which I’m about to review for you; and an adaptation of William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies, also for television, firmly under way. Speaking as something of a Stakhanovite myself – I write this from the spike on which I begin sitting every morning at 9am sharp, Protestant to my very buttocks – his output amazes me. And it’s not as if he’s knocking out gentle comedies. Everything he does is potentially hazardous, its subject matter thorny and contested.

Best Interests stars Sharon Horgan and Michael Sheen as the parents of a severely disabled child who is lying in a hospital, unconscious and attached to many machines. Her doctors believe her latest crisis has resulted in brain damage, that no future treatment is likely to be effective in her case, and that she will never be able to go home. They would like her care to be palliative. Her mother, Nicci (Horgan), however, refuses to accept this. When the series begins, we see her arriving at a courtroom, where she will fight the hospital’s decision on legal grounds. But we also see that she is alone. Her husband, Andrew (Sheen), turns up separately, looking exhausted, lost and sad.

The first half of the series is told in flashback, as we find out how the couple got here. I think, perhaps, that Thorne has made Nicci and Andrew just a little too saintly as parents – in the better times, before their daughter Marnie (brilliantly played by Niamh Moriarty) suffered this crisis – and it seems unlikely to me that a couple who are carers would be so frisky as to attempt sex in the loo of a train. But everything else feels just right. I admire particularly the attention Thorne gives to their other daughter, Katie (Alison Oliver), whom they inadvertently (and sometimes not so inadvertently) neglect, so taken up are they by Marnie’s needs. It’s beautifully done, the quietness of Katie’s rebellion; the way her protests are always stymied by the whole family’s fear and guilt over Marnie.

I read one review that insisted Best Interests is “even-handed”, which makes it sound more like a school ethics lesson than an involving drama. But I don’t think this is so – which is why, in the end, it works for me. As Marnie’s health deteriorates, and the hospital brings in mediators, Nicci is visited by the blank-faced representative of some Christian right-to-life group, which feeds her untruths and offers to fund her legal battle. Thanks to this, a kind of madness besets her. If its real engine is her grief – and Horgan makes us feel that it is – the fuel on which it’s running day to day has to do with delusion; she has been preyed upon.

Horgan and Sheen are magnificent in their roles, fully inhabiting their characters. Sometimes we like them, and sometimes we really don’t, which is as it should be. Horgan gives Nicci a fierce distractedness that comes to exclude everyone and everything save for Marnie. Sheen makes Andrew, who is kind and patient, resilient at first, and then painfully isolated. When his frustration – and horror, for he cannot bear his child to be in pain – finally breaks through, it makes emotional sense, as if it’s the end of something rather than its beginning.

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I hope Sheen takes note of this: my admiration of him in this series; the complete suspension of my disbelief. A few days ago, in an interview, he spoke about who should be allowed to play what. He said he did not really believe it when non-Welsh actors played Welsh characters. Also, that most actors are not able convincingly to play a social class different to their own. Personally, I think this is a bit silly. But the best argument in his case is probably simply to tell him that I was moved and convinced by his role as the parent of a dying child. And wasn’t it more of a stretch by far than Tony Blair’s evangelistic estuary, Brian Clough’s snarling Smoggie?

Best Interests
BBC One, 12 June, 9pm

[See also: Fear and loathing at the BBC]

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This article appears in the 14 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Over and Out