Bob and Rose

Monday, September 10, 2001 by

Russell T Davies, the writer of ITV’s new six-part drama Bob and Rose, has baggage. In the pre-autumn schedule skirmishes his name has been deployed as an exocet to punch a hole through the BBC’s “cynically populist” drama output. He is, like McGovern, Bleasdale and Bennett, a writer whose name can be bandied about in the marketing of a programme. Whilst he is arguably yet to contribute as much to television, he has the added the frisson of controversy. If we chart Davies’ career thus far, we find a writer with a large and eclectic body of work (much of it actually run of the mill), with little notoriety – bar one exception.

Born in Swansea, Davies was educated at Oxford University. After completing the BBC Director’s course he worked in TV production but ultimately moved into scripting. In the early 1990s he wrote two well-received children’s dramas for the BBC; Century Falls and Dark Season and contributed to ITV’s Children’s Ward, with a BAFTA award-winning edition featuring a child-killer who pointedly did not receive his comeuppance by the end of the episode. His work at this stage was already characterised by a gutsy, straightforward style that would become his hallmark. Davies then moved on to “grown-up” television, creating the soap opera Revelations, contributing to Families and creating and writing The Grand.

In February 1999 the first series of his drama Queer as Folk was televised on Channel 4. The resulting Daily Mail-fuelled furore ensured that suddenly Russell T Davies was equated with controversy. His straightforward style and treatment of homosexuality was misinterpreted as a “gay writer” out to shock. His previous work was, effectively, erased.

The prepublicity for Bob and Rose (which depicts the growing romance between a gay man and a woman) purposely invoked the ghosts of Queer as Folk. Alison Graham, writing in the Radio Times, was unable to proceed with a preview of the programme until she had shaken it sufficiently free from the Queer controversy – “Bob and Rose is the acceptable face of Queer as Folk, a fairy tale that makes gay life palatable for a mainstream, ITV1 audience.” In actual fact Davies has been successful in providing “palatable” depictions of gay life before, with a character in The Grand coming out on mainstream ITV. It’s really this and his other more mainstream work, that provide the more obvious antecedents for Bob and Rose.

That said, the opening scene of the first episode baited us with Queer iconography. The depiction of the hedonistic Canal Street, Manchester’s “Gay Village”, was straight out of the Channel 4 series. Here was Davies setting out his stall, confidently asserting that the mechanics of gay culture aren’t necessarily unsuitable for the ITV masses. Point made, the drama was free to follow its own course, unimpeded by the need to make further statements about alternative lifestyles.

Bob and Rose is informed by Davies’ experiences in popular drama, wherein the characters are drawn swiftly and economically. We are invited to look for clues to our characters beneath the action and the dialogue that drive the story. When Bob (Alan Davies) discovers a man he’s picked up has a long-term partner, he quickly withdraws from the situation without any histrionics and displays a battered sort of respect for stable relationships (something he is lacking). Bob is a weathered romantic. This same aspect is brought out of Rose (Lesley Sharp) who laments that songs “don’t have stories in them anymore”.

Davies is equally efficient in establishing central tenets of the story. For example, we learn very quickly that Bob is a schoolteacher; Davies dispensing with any agonising that might have been drawn out from the juxtaposition of a gay man in this profession. In addition to getting on with the business of telling the story, he is also making the important assumption that ITV viewers are sufficiently enlightened not to be troubled by Bob’s sexuality and the career he has chosen. Economy, again. You’re either going to buy Bob and Rose … or you’re not.

It is in these small simply told details that Davies also builds his narrative and establishes the devices of the plot. He doesn’t go as far as to have one of the characters break away from a scene in order to visit the toilet, but he does go to some pains to pepper the script with the type of small mundane intrusions not normally seen in television drama. Here’s one; when Bob gets lucky and pulls on a night out, he returns to his conquest’s home where there is some small business involving turning off a burglar alarm. These unusual moments of “reality” imbue the piece with a level of naturalism, making the characters and the plot feel familiar within a short space of time. They also allow him subsequently to smuggle in plot devices that would otherwise seem obvious. A case in point has him engineering the later revelation that Rose has called Bob’s house. When Bob dials 1471 and follows up the last number to have called him, we as viewers are only a split-second ahead of him discovering it was Rose. Had Davies not carefully segued pockets of reality into the script earlier on, we would have been far more aware that Rose’s phone call was actually engineered to bring about a dénouement in the plot.

Away from the minutiae of the scripting, we can also study Davies’ use of structure. Bob and Rose is a very neatly constructed television script. Davies cleverly uses the commercial breaks to signal the completion of different phases of the story, with the end of Bob and Rose’s initial meeting closing part one. Bob’s discovery that Rose has called him underscores their relationship as two people who bumped into one another and cements them as friends. It also signals the end of part two. Finally, part three closes with Bob proposing a dinner-date, moving them from friendship to dating. The conventions of commercial television are rarely so well exploited.

Whilst Davies’ work is undoubtedly due plaudits, there are a few shortcomings here, notably in some of the characterisation. Whilst we have already seen how Davies uses brevity to great effect, the flipside of this is to fall into caricature. Arguably this happens with Rose’s mother who is seen as something of a straight-talking eccentric, not too dissimilar to Hazel in Queer as Folk. The character jars in this naturalistic world and the fact that Davies had unsuccessfully tried to launch a spin-off series featuring Hazel suggests he felt there was still some unattended business and so the character-type is shoehorned in here. Similarly, Rose’s partner Andy is also just a little too mannered, an overly boorish representation of the heterosexual male, watching mindless telly, leaving the house in a mess and copiously breaking wind. This over-eggs the pudding, as though Davies is trying to tip the scales too far in the favour of Bob. With the quality of writing evident elsewhere in the programme, this is a leg-up not required.

Yet, considering it’s still early days for the series, episode one of Bob and Rose is little short of a marvel. It’s utterly mainstream but quietly subversive in the assumptions Russell T Davies makes. One could hope that will do much to remove the whiff of notoriety around his name – and perhaps it will. However, with his next TV production dealing with the Second Coming – in modern day Manchester – this would surely only be a temporary reversal anyway.


Comments are closed.