Everybody happy?

I read a fascinating quote from Christopher Eccleston in the Observer magazine yesterday: “The staples of drama are not people who have been happy. Nobody wants to watch a drama about a happy person.” Let’s just run that past again: Nobody wants to watch a drama about a happy person. I really like Christopher Eccleston; he’s my third favourite Doctor and I was lucky enough to interview him for Elizabeth and he turned out to be exactly as I wanted him to be: earnest, serious, but not above self-lacerating honesty and good humour. So, I take what he says seriously. Especially about acting and drama. And this quote has been churning around in my mind ever since. (Probably because I’ve been painting; stuff churns in your mind when you’re doing DIY.)

Last night I eagerly sat down to watch one of four new homegrown TV programmes starting this week: Exile on BBC1. (There’s also Vera, Case Sensitive and The Shadow Line.) Inevitably, it’s in three parts, but those three parts play out over consecutive nights because today’s terrestrial TV schedulers think we’ll forget everything in seven days. Ironically, Exile is about a man who forgets more than just what happened in a TV programme. In fact, what it is, is TV’s first Alzheimer’s thriller. As tricky as that may seem, creator Paul Abbott and his star protegee Danny Brocklehurst have welded two genres to create a third, and for that, you must applaud their guts and determination. And BBC1’s.

Exile began last night with John Simm’s lad-mag writer losing his job and his girlfriend (somebody else’s wife, naturally), and heading North, in the driving rain, to somewhere suburban in Lancashire to rehabilitate. (He’s also a coke-snorter, so it’s literal as well as emotional.) He returns to the family home, where his dad, Jim Broadbent, a former campaining journalist, is in the throes of Alzheimer’s, looked after, round the clock, by saintly daughter and Simm’s older sister Olivia Coleman. Although, well-written, she’s not saintly in the beyond-belief sense, just less selfish than John Simm, who hasn’t been back for years. The house is brilliantly grey and gloomy – as who’s got time to redecorate? – which means it is frozen in time, just like Broadbent, and its ghosts are still in the walls, which makes Exile about the past, and about reconnecting with it. It’s also an acting gift for Simm and Broadbent, who get to do two-handers about fathers and sons, and inevitably rise to the occasion. Apart from the heinous crime of having Simm call Coleman “Sis” when they first speak – in case we are too stupid to work out that a man and a woman who know each other and have the same dad are brother and sister – Brocklehurst does his best to sidestep the usual drama cliches, and instead layers on the reality of the frankly unbearable situation with subtlety and wit.

The thriller begins to emerge towards the end of part one, when a memory sparked by being back in the old house reignites Simm’s curiosity about a story his dad was working on before he started to lose his mind. The audacity of drawing a conspiracy thriller out of what feels like a traditional family chamber piece with a box-ticking “issue” at its core is head-spinning. But don’t come here looking for glamour or flashy thrills. It’s clearly going to be a depressing ride. Episode one ground lovelessly from failure and despondence to family tragedy and unsavoury symptomatic detail to rushed sex and a spin round the Co-Op with admirable commitment to the dreary and everyday that are the hallmarks of Jimmy McGovern and Paul Abbott’s work. Except it’s Abbott that has carved thrillers out of this morass, and you detect his hand here.

Brocklehurst has proved his licks on Shameless and Clocking Off, and we’re in able company here, but we go back to Eccleston’s theory: Nobody wants to watch a drama about a happy person. Let’s hope not, or nobody’s going to watch Exile. In this country we do gloom and grit so well. I loved it when Simm re-entered his teenage bedroom, now stripped of all posters, but still with the “same curtains.” It was like something out of Tim Burton: all wonky angles and tiny window and a headboard from Hell. Just making sure nobody thought Exile was a light drawing room comedy. Let’s see where it goes next.

Oh, and some of you will have spotted this already, if you’ve been reading: I have just created a drama, or a comedy drama, about a happy person. Still, I don’t expect anybody to watch it, as it’s on the radio.

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5 thoughts on “Everybody happy?

  1. Ha! ‘Sis’ grated on me so much. (The first 10m had a bit too much expository dialogue for me). I remember a writer – Russell T Davis?/ Steven Moffat – saying it was the laziest form of writing. Tho overall – despite some excessive scoring at times – much potential. The ‘local political intrigue’ angle brings strands of Red Riding, and I too though, ‘without this it’d be a 90m issue drama starring David Tennant’. John Simm has lots of grey now, which makes me feel old.

    Olivia Coleman is apparently aces in another dramatic role in Tyrannosaur that screened at sundance, liking this career shift of hers. What with O’Dowd in Crimson Petal, the C4 comedy peeps are spreading their TV wings.

    • I seem to remember seeing one of Sam Bain / Jesse Armstrong bemoaning the fact that the laziest opening line ever is “Happy wedding day, sis”.

      Come to think of it it may actually have been Russell T Davies – I believe it was on a Charlie Brooker Screenwipe writing special of some kind.

  2. Honestly, Andrew, if you can’t just laugh when someone who doesn’t know you feels free to insult you for his own exclusive amusement… I mean, there must be something wrong with you. It was just banter, Martin. Etc.

    Comedy drama isn’t drama. The rules must be different, surely. And in any case, of course a drama about a happy person would work, as long as that happiness is central to the drama.

    This is a terrible argument to put forward, and I’m sure it isn’t any comfort to you. But you must be as aware as everyone else that most Radio 4 comedy dramas don’t work either as comedy or as drama. If yours actually raises a titter then it will stand out. If anyone listening cares even a little bit what happens to any of the characters then it will stand out.

    There’s no point saying don’t worry about it, because obviously you’re going to anyway. But frankly I can’t help feeling that some of the writers of Radio 4 comedy dramas don’t spend much time worrying what people are going to think of their work. It’s in your favour that you care about… things.

  3. It reminds me of State Of Play, which was also Paul Abbott and John Simm. Simm played a journalist having an affair with his best friend’s wife in that, too. Then Hollywood went and did a bad version of it. Let’s hope the same doesn’t happen with Exile.

  4. “I really like Christopher Eccleston; he’s my third favourite Doctor”

    Ouch! The rapier slid in and out like a hot knife through butter. A hit Sir, a palpable hit.

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