Thursday, January 04, 2007

this life +10

This Life +10 was a funny programme, in the end - not a very good idea in the first place, for one thing; these one-off reunion shows, in my experience, rarely work. If you are seeking to advance storylines and tie up ten year old threads, particularly on a show where a lot happened, then attempting to do so in a little over an hour is a thankless task. If Amy Jenkins and the five actors at the centre of her show were serious about providing a resolution to the two hugely successful This Life series in the mid 1990s, they should have done more than one show, and in doing so could - just as they did initially - illustrate their conflicting actions and emotions in something approaching detail. Instead, last night's show had the feel of a heavily edited omnibus, or - at worst - a thinly sketched out and poorly scripted attempt at a Poliokoff drama.

For all that, Jenkins created a set of enduring characters (although why one of the best, Ferdy, was excluded wasn't really clear) and there were moments in the show - the interplay between Egg and Miles, Anna's rant at the dinner table - that conjured up sparks reminiscent of the old magic. Yet the characters, as befitting such a grand finale, have all become ludicrous caricatures. Egg is a super-successful novelist, and Milly a 'supermum'. Warren - presumably by virtue of his being 'the sensitive one' - is a self-help junkie. Anna is a hardnosed lawyer who specialises in getting hardened criminals acquitted and Miles is a kind of tousle-haired playboy, and a member of the landed gentry, to boot. What's more, he and Anna still have the same old fizz and - guess what - this time she's broody.

Strands of believability snake through an absurd plot. Egg has published one well-received novel but he's already having a high-profile documentary made about him, which conveniently (sorry, absurdly) means that all the characters get to do idiotic reality show style 'video diaries'. This is really stupid. And yet Egg's first novel was just a slightly fictionalised version of his flatmate's lives, and he can't write another. Shades of Amy Jenkins' writing career aside, I kind of bought this; Egg tended to be watching more than acting in the first iteration of This Life, and it's from experiences such as his that hit novels are no doubt borne.

And while Miles is still a buffoon, albeit one who has now lost any edge or believability (even, sadly, as a stooge for Anna, who is still well played by Daniella Nardini), his character gives Warren his one believable characteristic. For although Warren, one short scene in a cafe with Milly aside, is almost unrecognisable, it's through Miles that we occasionally glimpse him. Jenkins gives us just one direct example of his mental distress, but it's a shrewd one, for he is still tortured by the fact that, despite the closeness of the housemates in the orginal show, Miles never welcomed him into the group. Again, believable. Andrew Lincoln, meanwhile, through Egg, provides the occasional nostalgic lightness of touch - his brief asides, usually expressing frustration or bewilderment, are a regular treat.

Elsewhere, however, so much is wrong. It's natural given the power of Anna's character, that Jenkins should wish to return to the issue of career women and whether it's possible to have it all, but why she has to then crowd Anna and Milly into such opposing stereotypes is quite unclear. Equally, in the intervening years - not least thanks to 'The Office' - a decent scriptwriter should have learned a lot about the confusions of love and the premise of the happy ending. But there's nothing endearing about Anna or Miles' scenes together, and that's a travesty after the emotional power of their relationship ten years ago. When Miles, loopily, goes bankrupt and leaves for Timbuktu at the end of the show (I know), there's no chance of a dramatic or emotional ending, and nor does the viewer desire one. Instead, the show ends with Miles shouting 'Love you all' at his friends. Amazing and hilarious, and not in a good way. As for Anna's desperation for a baby, it's all just carried out in such a clumsy fashion - although it does prompt the worst line of the show (and there are a few zingers): "I've chosen Warren as the co-parent".

The little tics, meanwhile, are as annoying as the absurdities of the plot. In one scene Egg and Milly's son swallows a coin. They're frantic with worry. Seconds later he's forgotten and doesn't appear for the remaining twenty minutes. What happened? Did he die? Elsewhere, Egg and Miles embark on a furious argument when the former discovers the latter voted Tory at the last election. Am I the only one who just assumed that all of the characters in the initial This Life were natural tories? OK, maybe not Egg, and Anna might have escaped that burden by virtue of being a Scot, but Jenkins, looking for significance in her original series, is exaggerating things if she felt it presaged and heralded the arrival of New Labour. It was about a bunch of rich lawyers, for god's sake.

And then a few moments which crack and fizzle, a few scenes which remind us why This Life was such a great show. And then you ask, "was it such a great show?". Probably not, but it was loud and brash and rude and funny and, at the time, pretty unique. Amy Jenkins manages to stir up moments of nostalgia, but ultimately adds little to the pot. Never mind - it was nice, despite the flaws, to have it back for the evening. I don't suppose in ten years time there'll be any clamour for a This Life +20, however.


Anonymous said...

I think the problem was that while the original had believability, this clumsy effort didn’t. Young professionals could identify with the core group of recent graduates at the beginning of their career and easily recognise the peripheral characters, the different expectations and pressures et cetera.

It appealed to people who thought the characters ordinary. But this ordinariness was jettisoned and the writer’s spent the last years reading too much Derrida. She deconstructs it once by making Egg’s book is a proxy for the first series then again with the documentary. And if Egg is now extraordinary, Miles is doubly so.

I have to take issue with your description of Milly as a ‘supermum’. Surely supermums have it all – kids and career – whereas Milly is a stay-at-home-mum who wishes her husband was equally conventional and cries because the conventional life she craves eludes her. They’re a terribly tragic couple. So many dream of being celebrity novelists, but she’s as hard on him now as she was when he was struggling. What’s her problem? And what will they do when the money from novel number one runs out?

jonathan said...

Yep, you're quite right; one thing that would have been nice to see in the reunion episode was Egg finally standing up for himself!

I was quoting him, though, when I called her (with invisible irony) a 'supermum', which was the description with which he countered Anna's allegation of 'housewife'.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand any of that garble, but I once swallowed a pound coin and it was no laughing matter, I can tell you.