Before I began writing this, I had to put a rocket under someone’s bum (I mean verbally, though things could get more serious if they push me), something that seems quite apt in the circumstances. Having watched, or half-watched, 13 of 14 episodes of One Day, a new adaption for Netflix of David Nicholls’ bestselling novel of 2009, all I can tell you is that it, too, is in want of some roasting-hot fire at its behind.
Yes! Imagine investing so much time in something, only to give up at the final hurdle. But I’d reached the book’s famous last-minute twist – no, I won’t spoil it – only to find that, even then, I was barely interested. The bandwidth provided by streaming has enabled this series to stretch and bag like a pair of old tights. It could have come in at six episodes, and been none the worse for it.
One Day, as you don’t need me to tell you, is for the most part (that twist) a romcom about a couple, Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew, who meet at their graduation ball at Edinburgh University, briefly cop off, and thereafter spend a long time circling each other until, at the last, they get it together. The novel revisits them on the same day – 15 July, St Swithin’s Day – every year for 20 years, beginning in 1988 (which, incidentally, is the year I went to university). The film adaptation of 2011 had a screenplay by David Nicholls, and even that couldn’t quite save it. This series, however, has been written by a room, US-style; it was led by Nicole Taylor, whose Three Girls, about the Rochdale child abuse case, was so brilliant.
Romcoms are perilously difficult to write, and should you miraculously get the tone right, you’re still not out of the woods. Success rests on the chemistry of your leads. I don’t think Ambika Mod (best known as a junior doctor in This Is Going to Hurt) and Leo Woodall (the cocky catamite in the second series of The White Lotus) have any chemistry.
Their characters are, of course, opposites: her northern, chippy and hard-working; him posh, floppy-haired and arrogant. But while their performances are perfectly good, no electricity crackles beneath. They’re not sexy together. We don’t believe in their endless toing and froing; we’re not willing them on. Ghastly as Emma’s boyfriends are (Gary, the curtain-haired theatre director; Ian, the rubbish comedian), I couldn’t see why she might prefer Dexter, and vice versa. Her charmlessness should be like a pair of spectacles he can whip off, but there is never a moment when she’s fully endearing.
“No one ever built a statue to a critic,” says Dexter, when the reviewers come after him during his brief career as a youth-TV presenter. But I must press on, I’m afraid (in any case, there’s a lovely memorial to John Ruskin by Derwentwater). For universality, one needs singularity. This, though, has none. We could be anywhere, at almost any recent time.The look is bland: a very American made-for-TV feel. London is a red-brick paradise, litter-free and gleaming. The Cotswolds, where Dexter’s parents live and people go to get married, is straight out of Richard Curtis (and yes, here comes Tim McInnerny, as Dexter’s father).
An unfunny cartoonish-ness creeps in: the supervisor at the Tex-Mex restaurant where Emma, struggling to be a writer, works part-time; the ghastly parents of Sylvie (Eleanor Tomlinson), the woman to whom Dexter becomes engaged (Joely Richardson and Toby Stephens hamming like they’re in am-dram). I kept thinking of the TV adaption of Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends. It felt so modern and real. Beside it, One Day is a bit embarrassing.
Nicholls’ novel found so many readers because it is about growing older as much as it’s about love; it deals in promise, disappointment and acceptance. What an own goal, then, that here Emma and Dexter seem to age not at all. In the end, only records mark the ticking of the years. The series has a fantastic soundtrack: S’Express, the Fall, Cocteau Twins. But then, it needs one. Music does most (all) of the heavy lifting, telling the audience, in the absence of too many other clues, exactly how it should feel.
[See also: The politics of Generation Grime]
This article appears in the 07 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Who runs Labour?