One of this column’s favourite columns by other people is about soccer. It appears online daily in a British newspaper and is written by a rotating motley crew of wiseacres. Recently that column stated that things have been bad and events have, “Got to the point where it no longer hopes and prays to hear of good news, merely to be informed of stuff that isn’t catastrophically bad and monumentally depressing.”
It wasn’t talking about soccer. This is all by way of a tortured segue to good news about British TV, which has recently produced a batch of unusually strong and genre-smashing content, most of it created by women. Here are two series, plus an older one-off drama that, fair warning, is brilliant but chilling.
Back to Life (Crave) was made for BBC and picked up by Showtime. Little wonder. It’s about melancholy and magnificently so. Barely definable by genre-type, it’s comedy, drama and mystery. It’s also about happiness and the necessity of being upbeat sometimes, no matter what bricks are thrown at you.
The person who is relentlessly upbeat is the central figure, Miri Matteson (Daisy Haggard). When we meet her, she’s just been released from jail after serving 18 years for a crime that isn’t revealed until several episodes have unfolded. But you are very aware that she didn’t serve 18 years for a minor offence.
Miri goes from prison to living at home in the small, seaside town where she grew up and the crime occurred. She wants to live with her parents for a while, get a job and move on with her life. She’s very determined and optimistic about it, even when the words “psycho bitch” are spray-painted on the wall of her parents’ home and someone throws a brick through a window at her when she actually lands a job.
While it can be hilarious – every supporting character is presented as well-defined but eccentric – there is also gloom. Miri is mostly polite and cheerful, but hardly anyone is willing to forgive or forget. Also, there’s a guy stalking her, a true-crime specialist who wants her to tell the true story of the incident that got her jailed. She cannot escape the crime. And when hilarity meets gloom, there sits melancholy. It’s six episodes, each under an hour.
Gentleman Jack (Crave/HBO) is also genre-bending and stunningly good. If you’re a connoisseur of British period drama you’ll recognize the milieu at the start and then get disoriented. As you are meant to be.
The eight-episode series is based on the true story – the diaries, mainly – of Anne Lister, a well-to-do Yorkshire landowner who lived an astonishing life of extensive travel, business and more lesbian relationships than you can shake a horse whip at. (Written by Sally Wainwright who created Happy Valley, it stars Suranne Jones from Doctor Foster as Anne.) It’s a giddily paced, funny and irreverent depiction of a very irreverent woman.
We meet Anne in 1832 when she is 41 and, as always, dressed entirely in black and bossing everyone around. The crispness and bluntness of the dialogue rings like an inspired send-up of Victorian-era dramas and to call Anne larger than life would be an understatement. But the series is more than a broad-canvas portrait of an unconventional woman. Anne pauses sometimes to talk to the camera, telling the audience about what simmers beneath that hard exterior.
Longford (Crave/HBO) is a BBC/HBO TV-movie co-production from 2006. Jim Broadbent plays Frank Pakenham, who was also officially the 7th Earl of Longford, a politician and famous social reformer, principally on penal reform. His reform work led him to the notorious Myra Hindley (Samantha Morton).
In 1966, Hindley and her boyfriend, Ian Brady (Andy Serkis), were given life sentences for the rape and murder of five children. In the drama, based on real events, Longford comes to believe that Hindley was under Brady’s sway, not an instigator. Brady tells him Hindley is a brilliant liar. But Longford sticks by Hindley, which makes him a pariah.
Broadbent is excellent as a brilliant man whose heart eventually overrules his head. (Morton is stunningly good too.) What transpires is a tragedy, really, and wonderfully nuanced, and you must watch right to the end to feel its full, powerful impact.
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