This Life

Friday, June 16, 2000 by

There’s some muffled, indistinct but obviously British pop music murmuring in the background – could it be Tindersticks? – and various half-empty bottles of wine resting self-consciously in the foreground. The picture is murky and flickering, as if lit entirely by scented candles, and keeps flipping erratically between long shots, close shots, and ridiculously close-up close shots. There is talk – chattering and shouting, hysterical laughter and knowing insults, whispered asides and intimate confessions. Chopped vegetables, joints, huge sofas, wooden floors, suits and ties and offices and courtrooms and endless legal-speak. At last - This Life is on the telly again.

BBC2 have began a full run of both series back to back. They’ve promised to show an episode every weekday after Newsnight; so already after just one week we’re almost half way through the first series. This is a cunning ruse, no doubt conceived to attract that wandering late-night audience who stay up watching the TV as a way of putting-off going to bed ahead of another working day tomorrow. It’ll pull in more viewers than The Late Show (which also went out virtually every weeknight) ever did; and the scheduling typifies a kind of tactic adhered to by the emerging digital channels – assuming a week has now become too long for an audience to wait to see something they’ve already seen once before. So we’ve got This Life here, every day, in one sense merely a useful alternative to the Euro 2000 highlights packages on at this hour on both BBC and ITV.

Never mind; so far, the rate that these repeats are being shown has thrown up all kinds of amusing observations that you couldn’t have noticed before watching each episode a week apart. With the unfolding of plotlines all squashed and kaleidoscoped and accelerated it’s been telling to see how almost every night this week a character has asserted boldly in response to some half-hearted complaint or gesture: “but this is the ’90s!”. Our five heroes, our acquaintances and mates and role-models (how tempting still to watch it as some kind of parallel to your own experiences of house-sharing and life post-university), are meticulously sketched in this first batch of episodes – Warren, Milly, Anna, Egg and Miles (those last two names still look unforgivably stupid written down) all seem utterly real and believable right from the start.

Of course it’s doubly fascinating watching this knowing how all the characters go on to evolve and collide and how a lot of the assumptions and traits they’re given at the start are totally undermined by the end; Milly is even a bit likeable in these early episodes, Miles seems abhorrent, and it’s hard to fathom the route Egg will take from naïve bumbling fool to wronged, helpless innocent victim who will end up warranting so much sympathy from the viewer. Anna’s more tolerable and genuinely amusing at this stage; while it is Warren above all who is the rock, the foundation and dispenser of wisdom, easily the most experienced and mature of the five to begin with – the fact that he too will undergo such a massive fall and change in personality from how he is now adds to these episodes’ tantalising appeal.

All of the principal actors seem to know exactly who they are and how to play their characters from the very first scene; these repeats confirm again the talents of the production team (all overseen by the genius Tony Garnett) in assembling a uniformly excellent cast right from the start. Amusing too to recall in retrospect how these five would go from being seen as typifying obscure and lamented clichés (original press coverage of series one was relentlessly hostile – not so much, “what is this?” as “what is this doing on BBC2?”) to acutely important emblems of a modern Britain (four page Observer features on the end of series two), only to end up disappearing into a variety of degrees of success (Jack Davenport all over the place; Andrew Lincoln doing voice-overs for Euro 2000 …)

As witty, surprising, addictive, intriguing and horrific as it was four years ago (it’s the first time the original series has been shown on terrestrial TV since 1996) This Life is above all about the now, its characters and plotlines revolving around dilemmas entirely to do with the present. Without any political or social concerns cluttering up the narrative, the whole series can move through time and appear just as contemporary and fresh today (save, of course, or the endless loops of Britpop).

The decor of their legendary house hasn’t dated (yet); neither have the various basic moral and social dilemmas the series seems to address. Egg states in the opening minutes of the first episode how “theories don’t matter” anymore; this is Amy Jenkins, the series creator and chief writer, signaling the agenda for the forthcoming 30 odd episodes: no polemicising and angry railing against the condition of modern society here. It’s significant that the series was first shown on BBC2 the week after the end of Peter Flannery’s spectacular Our Friends in the North which was entirely to do with theories and political polemic and how personal relationships are affected by time and changing social climates. Yet here in 2000, This Life is still this life because society hasn’t really moved on or progressed at all from 1996; the concerns and attitudes (or lack of them) and the humour, cynicism and self-deprecation the series presents as rife in the last drawn-out year of the Major Government don’t seem in anyway different to any such similar tangible mood of this new decade. One of the most important, groundbreaking and enjoyable TV series of the 1990′s, This Life remains a joy to watch and this repeat run is to be unequivocally cheered.



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