It’s true love for me and Truelove, a series that does so many good things at once, it fairly restores my faith in TV drama. But I come just a little late to it, which means I must, in the cause of those yet to catch up themselves, be extra-careful not to give away too much of its dextrous plot. How does this particular knot unravel? In essence, Channel 4’s series is The Big Chill goes to Dignitas, except that the whole thing is resolutely grounded in 21st-century Britain: a plangent and rather irritating realm of terraced houses, seaside cafés and temporary traffic lights that simply refuse to change. Here is assisted suicide done the English way, via endless cups of tea, many large gin and tonics, inky-black jokes, and a certain kind of discretion.
Five friends are at a wake in a West Country pub. One of them, Tom (Karl Johnson), tells the others that the inn takes its name (The Lover’s Knot) from a long-ago suicide pact – and because he’s drunk, he then insists that a variation on such a thing wouldn’t, for them, be a bad idea now they’re getting old. Among their number, after all, is a retired doctor, David (Peter Egan), an ex-soldier, Ken (Clarke Peters), and a former copper, Phil (Lindsay Duncan). Between them, they’ve the requisite skills to do the deed should one of them prefer to avoid unnecessary suffering by departing this life a bit early. And what about love? Half a century of friendship says they should, if thus called upon, be willing to take the risk.
Everything that happens follows from this. Cancer, dementia. Soon, one of them does indeed want to die, and then another. Phil and Ken do the assisting, their initial reluctance swiftly subsiding in the face of their friends’ terror at the future – and they’re highly efficient, convincing the police, with only one exception so far, that the first death was an accident, and the second, a suicide. But it’s complicated, and not only for the obvious reasons. Long ago, Phil and Ken were in love; Phil’s husband, Nigel (Phil Davis), strongly suspects that they still desire each other and are now having an affair, a conviction that she utilises as both an alibi and a means of protecting him.
In the wrong hands, all this would be implausible at best, preposterous at worst. But Iain Weatherby, the series’ writer, is so sure-footed, weaving a story that is at once highly topical, completely compelling and beautifully tender; this viewer suspended her disbelief immediately. I love his dialogue’s restraint, the way it allows people to say nothing, the actors’ expressions doing all of the work – though admittedly, a cast this magnificent could make just about anything spring to life. They’re all superb – the fifth friend is Marion (Sue Johnston), Tom’s sister and David’s wife – though it’s Duncan who truly mesmerises, somehow conveying inward fervour even as she’s ever-droll and sardonic. Whenever she and Ken are alone together, feeling their way towards something, trying hard to talk without making complete idiots of themselves, I find myself in tears. I just can’t help it.
It’s amazing to see such a group of older actors together on screen. This happens disgracefully rarely, particularly when you consider the UK’s maturing demographic – ageism being the last acceptable bigotry in liberal circles and so prevalent it passes unnoticed. But Truelove’s characters are not, as older people so often are when they do appear on screen, merely foils for younger stars; a collection of corpses in cardigans. They may well (some of them) be doting grandparents, but that’s hardly everything. Weatherby attends fully to the way that – just imagine it! – people in their seventies have hopes, ambitions and desires; that they like to drink, to dance, and even to have drunken sex. He highlights how crazy and appalling it is that our culture renders them invisible (though this may be their superpower when it comes to a police investigation).
If Truelove has a message, it’s not about the right to die so much as the right to live; the need – literally – to resist the ever-smaller boxes society likes to put us in as we get older. Phil’s daughter wants her parents to downsize, but her mother isn’t buying it. She’ll hang on to her banisters for now, thanks. A bungalow is just a coffin by another name.