Wednesday, January 03, 2007

This Life + 10

I had been looking forward to the 'This Life' ten-years-on-special for as long as they had been hyping it up on BBC2 – a period in which they’d repeated all of the original episodes in a late night slot to whet the appetite of old (and growing older) fans. I quite enjoyed the programme last night, but I have to say that the glorious one-off return was, overall, rather a disappointment. The programme’s main shortcoming was that so much of it was so utterly, utterly preposterous. One of the major attractions of 'This Life' in the 90s was its casual take-it-or-leave-it realism – the fact that nothing very dramatic happened in most of the episodes, the fly-on-the-wall documentary style jerky, hand-held camera shots. The best thing about it was that the characters were, in many ways (and allowing for the fact that, apart from Ferdie and a few minor characters, they were all lawyers, trainee lawyers or ex-lawyers and therefore relatively privileged) quite ordinary and unremarkable. It was a mark of This Life’s realism that its long running storylines revolved around Egg’s indecision about what he wanted to do with his life, Milly’s indecision over whether or not to cheat on Egg, and Miles’ and Anna’s mutual unrequited housemate love. The most dramatic moment of the two series came when Milly punched Rachael at the end of the last episode. By the end of the second series of most drama-soaps quite a lot more than that would have happened – probably at least two murders, a lottery win, and some sort of shenanigan involving amnesia and the arrival of a hitherto unknown psychopathic identical twin on the scene. So it was a bit of a shock to find that, 10 years later, the loveable slacker Egg had become a best selling author (and at the start of the programme was seen being interviewed by that bloke off Newsnight Review), that the sharp-witted, no-nonsense Warren had become some sort of (wannabe) Carol Caplin type ‘life-coach’ (p’shaw) and that, best of all, Miles had thrown in a career as a barrister to become a business tycoon and successful hotelier with a huge Jane Austen type 18th Century mansion somewhere in the rolling English countryside (as you do).

What total bollocks. The storyline, too, packed in a whole series of rather unconvincing ‘dramatic moments’ – as if the writer was making up for all that lost time between 1997 and 2006. Warren appeared to try to kill himself (and then turned out not to have intended any such thing – oh ho ho you guys), Miles’ preposterous trophy wife (more about her later) stormed out of the mansion in a fit of jealousy and left him, Milly was thrown by an out-of-control horse (a staple of the Neighbours end of episode cliff-hanger stock), Anna and Miles declared that they loved each other and got it on before deciding that it just couldn’t be because their love always was and must be doomed, Egg took a boat out onto Miles’ ornamental lake and threw, amongst other things, the disk or something containing the details of his forthcoming book into the water in some sort of romantic gesture and Miles decided to leave everything and go travelling when it turned out that he was bankrupt after his car and most of his furniture was repossessed. Too much.

The programme was filled up with cliché too, I thought. The presentation/characterisation of Miles’ Hong Kong fashion model wife bordered on racist stereotype. She was an archetypal ‘oriental’ beauty – an outwardly meek and submissive wife, but brimming inside with barely repressed jealousy and rage at any woman who came near her husband, and driven to marry Miles, too, it turned out, out of gold-digging ambition. Of course she very quickly blew up into some mysterious rage early in the programme and stamped out of the mansion screeching something unintelligible in the way that Western ‘orientalist’ prejudice imagines that ‘far-easterners’ inevitably behave. Furthermore, Miles didn’t seem that bothered by it – she was only a piece of mansion furniture, a lifestyle accessory anyway. A rich man can always get another one. Another cliché involved the presentation of Egg as novelist. Like all novelists, of course, Egg tends to write in bed wearing only his boxer shorts.

In addition, the programme, I thought, was spoiled by a certain sort of trite comeuppance-ism. The obvious thing here, was the treatment of Anna. Now I never really liked Anna. She was feted in the late 90s (inasfar as it is possible to fete a fictional character) as some sort of ‘post-feminist’ pin up – a self-reliant and sexually predatory young career woman. But this elevation of Anna to the status of sex-war heroine always stuck me as a little absurd. She was for me, simply, a rather unpleasant character – like any self-centred, sexually predatory male. There’s that old debate within feminism isn’t there, about whether or not liberation will come when women have adopted the worst characteristics of the stereotypical aggressive, selfish, manipulating macho male. However, despite my indifference towards that character, I thought it was rather depressing that she was given a kind of family values comeuppance in 'This Life + 10'. She turned up at Miles’ stately home desperate to have a baby and slightly hysterical – she had realised her true life’s vocation which, you see, being a woman, was to be a mother. She regretted, it seemed, all that career woman stuff and had come to see the error of her biological function denying ways. A shame. In addition, there was some suggestion, too, that Warren had HIV – which as a gay man, of course, he was always going to get sooner or later. He was shown taking a series of tablets rather reminiscent of anti-AIDs drugs. I might be wrong, here, because the tablet taking was presented at one point in terms of some sort appendage of his ‘lifestyle coach’ quackery (which of course, as a frivolous and vain gay man, Warren would be particularly susceptible to) – but, surely, the whole thing suggested anti-retrovirals? Moreover, Ferdie (another gay man) started the programme in a coffin (where he remained – although the unconvincing dramatic possibilities that a returning undead Ferdie presented to the writer must have been very tempting) – the cause of his death was never mentioned. Miles, too, got a kind of comeuppance when his possessions were taken and his Empire crumbled (although I approved of that one).

Another thing to have got my goat about the programme was the unnecessary insertion of drug taking and constant wild swearing into the events. The earlier series were famous for their depiction of drug taking and for the language of its characters. But it just seemed forced in this programme. There was absolutely no point to Egg taking cocaine on the steps of Miles’ mansion in the programme – it was as if the writer thought that she just ought to include it since it went with the This Life territory. But it just looked silly. Similarly, the constant swearing seemed completely forced. I don’t mind people swearing, of course, but the rate of fucks, shits and cunts in the dialogue felt totally unrealistic and rather token – again, as if the writer felt that she just ought to include as much of it as possible. But people just don’t talk like that.

Finally, Miles’ hair was about the most unconvincing thing in the whole programme. Owners of Hotel Empires and Mr D’Arcy stately homes simply don’t go around with a haircut modelled on Aslan the lion’s.

So, overall, a disappointment. Although I dare say that if they do a 'This Life + 20' I’ll watch it.

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