It’s fair to say that Seamus O’Hannigan, a TV presenter who has just been given his own political talk show, is a bit of dick. Yes, he’s nicely perky at the autocue: a good couple of notches away from The Day Today. But the ego is… tumescent. Approach him while holding a mobile phone in your hand and, no matter who you are, he’ll assume you want a selfie. His idea of charm – so important for one’s profile – is to shout “Hey, you!” at every colleague he passes, as if he made love to them only the night before. Also, to be heard to denounce the patriarchy whenever he’s in the presence of a woman. But it’s his sheer idiocy that’s more often on display. When his boss tells him the new show will be broadcast not from London but from somewhere beginning with an “I”, his best guess is Islington, where he just happens to have a big, stuccoed house.
In fact, the place is Ireland: Northern Ireland, about which he knows nothing (in spite of his name – long story – he’s deeply English). And yes, within minutes of landing in Belfast, he really is using his fingers to put “the Troubles” in inverted commas. Not that The Lovers, the new comedy-drama in which he appears, is interested in politics. For its writer, the Northern Irish-born playwright David Ireland, Belfast is merely a backdrop for what may be the most preposterous meet-cute ever dreamed up.
Having been attacked by a gang of boys while out filming, Seamus (Johnny Flynn) happens on Janet (Roisin Gallagher), a depressed supermarket worker, just as she’s about to kill herself with a sawn-off shotgun. He clambers over the wall into her yard, she puts down the gun, and they end up spending the night (chastely) together because he’s lost his mobile, and no taxi can be found to take him back to his hotel.
I know. Why didn’t he just call his producer with her phone and demand an emergency extraction? But preposterousness is a weird thing. One note of it in an otherwise plausible scenario, and all is lost. Lay it on with a trowel, however, and you’re into farce, and everything is A-OK – assuming the horseplay is funny, which it mostly is here. Not only has Ireland – the writer, not the country – got the journalistic ego pleasingly bang to rights (“I interviewed the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, and he said it was the best interview he’d ever done because I’m such a good listener,” O’Hannigan tells Janet, cutting her off mid-sentence). His dialogue skims wittily and at some speed through contemporary culture, names high and low splattered about like guano on the Giant’s Causeway (Phillip Schofield, Ken Loach, Stacey Solomon, Jon Snow).
But there’s something else about this series, and his name is Johnny Flynn. It’s hard to make a character seem at once like an utter arse and quite adorable, but somehow he does it with Seamus, the cocky facade concealing, not male vulnerability (that would be so predictable), but a niceness he long ago put aside in the cause of his ambition. Janet, we already understand, is going to return him to himself, which is why his desire for her is so immediate and so adolescent. In her unimpressed, plain-speaking presence, he remembers who he used to be. He feels sexy again – which is exciting, but also a bit dangerous if you’ve already got a celebrity actress everyone knows about back at home, and your job is to interview the foreign secretary (his concentration is shot).
Gallagher captures the agonising hopefulness Seamus in turn stirs in Janet, though she’s less funny than Alice Eve, who plays Frankie, his Instagram-addicted girlfriend, and the third corner in the triangle. So far, there has been much frantic texting between our wannabe lovers, but no sex: a sign, perhaps, of the sweetness at this show’s heart. If this was real life, it – the sex, I mean – would happen eventually, but it would change nothing, and Janet would soon be back to snapping at her boss, Philip (Conleth Hill, for it is now the law that he’s in everything).
But, almost in spite of myself, I really do like this series, for which reason I hanker after a more sentimental ending: an overall in a dustbin, a plane ticket, sparring partners for life.
14 September, 9pm
This article appears in the 06 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Crumbling Britain