This Life + 10

Tuesday, January 2, 2007 by

Almost without exception the press hated this belated Christmas present from BBC2. The depth of their fervour was inversely proportional to the height of expectation the self-same newspapers had whipped up prior to the programme’s transmission. Most critics sounded as if they had been let down by the show, and wrote as if they had somehow been betrayed for previously speaking out so positively.

Here was a case of the January blues writ large across broadsheets and tabloids alike. Why did so many feel slighted by This Life + 10? It had been a fair while since such a chorus of objection sounded en mass through the press. Perhaps, for wont of anything else to do in the first week back after the holiday, a bit of sacred cow slaughtering was in order. Perhaps they wanted to remind readers of their straight-talking, no-nonsense credentials.

Yet some of their more specific criticism sounded uncannily like the kind voiced when the series first began. An abhorrence of camera technique, a lack of empathy with the characters, disbelief that anybody really lived their lives in such a decadent manner … these were complaints all trotted out the first time around by the sorts of people who, within 12 months, were celebrating This Life as one of the greatest dramas of the 1990s. Accordingly such protests couldn’t help but ring more than a little hollow.

Others had issues with the way the style and tone of the programme felt hopelessly arcane. This was like criticising an edition of the evening news from 1995 for being out of date, or moaning about Pride and Prejudice sounding old-fashioned. For the episode not to have maintained a stylistic relationship with its parent series would have amounted to a far more genuine misfire. Each of the characters walked and talked in a manner true to their mid-’90s antecedents. Indeed, the fact they were all utterly plausible and thoroughly dimensional the second they appeared on camera was one of the show’s greatest assets.

Resurrecting a TV brand after a lengthy screen absence needs to be done in a way that alienates neither new viewers nor those with only a hazy recollection of history. What can’t happen, but what quite a few seemed to have wanted with + 10, was an opening act stuffed full of obscure references and continuity points dating back over a decade.

Funny how quickly the example of the revived Doctor Who slips from the mind. The same practice was adopted here, which amusingly provoked even more howls of displeasure than were prompted by the way the new model Doctor initially refused to even say he was a Time Lord. “But what happened after Milly punched Rachel?” came the cry. “Where were Kira and Jo?” “Who was living in The House?” The answers to these questions were, quite properly, far away back in 1997. To have opened the episode with a tortuous exposition of just how our principle protagonists got from all the way there to the here and now would have had people switching off in droves.

Instead the reason for their first, haphazard reunion, the funeral of Ferdy, one of their erstwhile housemates, was dispensed with in 60 seconds. The reason for their second, more substantial get-together was born purely out of expediency and not to resolve any 10-year-old unfinished business: to provide content for a fly-on-the-wall documentary about Egg’s latterday writing career.

Initially this seemed, to be sure, a somewhat lazy dramatic conceit. Couldn’t the writer, Amy Jenkins, have concocted a catalyst which revealed more about the state of her characters in 2006 other than simply the intervention of a third party? The first 10 minutes or so suggested the answer was no, and probably compounded whatever disillusionment certain viewers had already brought to the feast.

If, though, you sat down buoyed solely by the pleasure of seeing such a cast together again regardless of circumstances, or merely by the desire to be entertained with a good story, you’ll have stuck with it long past those 600 seconds. Deftly, wittily, as the episode went on the very presence of a third party proved to be the lynchpin around which the cast uncoiled their respective concerns. And ultimately the third party ended up no longer a witness but a willing player in driving the story around its sharply-worded tragicomic twists and turns.

This Life + 10, by definition alone, was about nostalgia and could so easily have fallen into the trap of using that as a be all and end all. Perhaps that’s what some in the press were expecting so fiercely, and which led them to spend all of the show’s running time looking for something that wasn’t there.

A different view would be to see elements of nostalgia present but always lurking slightly out of view, like words running through a stick of rock, forever threatening to be revealed if too much outer layer crumbled. Each character knew it was there, but rather than wield it in front of people’s faces they did their best to digest it on their own terms: again, like real life, and again, real enough to hopefully chime with those possessing knowledge about the show’s legacy from the minute to the cavernous.

And there were plenty of riches here for new and old viewers alike: Anna’s relentless teasing of Miles about his “geisha”, Me-Linh; Egg dancing around the kitchen while cooking; Miles grumpily conceding that not only did he support the Tories at the last election, he did it by postal vote in Hong Kong; Milly falling off a horse; Warren calling Miles “a cunt”; Miles and Anna flirting like two people about to play a fencing match; the all-too-real, all-too-embarrassing mass singalong to A Design For Life.

The crowning glory, however, was the dialogue. So often a decent drama with a fair concept and worthwhile bunch of actors is let down by an appalling script. Not here. Unusually by the standards of today’s TV, the dialogue sparkled from start to finish: “She can’t just leave; someone died here!”, “Your carbon fucking footprint must be the size of a Yeti”, “Fascinating, isn’t it, mastication?”, “Well, it’s too late to play for England, even if I started practicing now”, “All the money and success has turned him into some kind of fuck machine!” And on and on.

Just as the first 10 minutes behaved in a somewhat arch manner, though, so did the last 10: a rather preposterous sequence of revelations which sat at odds with the pace of the bulk of the episode and which, thanks to being compressed into such a short space of time, lost potency through repetition. The sight of yet another person being discovered weeping in their room, or the sound of yet another voice frantically yelling someone’s name from a distance, became blunted by dint of familiarity, which in turn bred contempt. Miles first vowing then actually leaving for Africa in less time than it takes to boil a kettle was a curiously hollow dénouement. Maybe it felt weird by virtue of being, unlike so many episodes from the earlier series, a happy ending.

This Life is about this life; this one here,” The Guardian pompously stated back in 1997. By nature of its frantic morals, its loose affiliation with the past, its capacity for misinterpretation and defiantly sketchy conclusion, at the very least + 10 provided, to use a loaded phrase, a roadmap for 2007. A shame so many seemed to be reading it the wrong way up.


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