The series has been greeted by a mixed response with episode 6 causing a buzz while the rest being summed up as alright if you like that sort of thing and quite funny at times. Of course the real reason why that one episode is so powerful (though for me episode 7 is better) is because of the work done in the preceding episodes which paint a world that, whether it is familiar or not, becomes inhabited by people we feel we know. It opens without compromise, after half an hour there have been so many sexual references and so much of what TV announcers like to call `strong language` that doubters may well have turned off there and then.
What stops it all becoming gratuitous is a gem of a character in Henry Best played by Vincent Franklin who was in The Thick of It. I can’t recall seeing another character quite like him even though serious TV drama is awash with middle age angst. 46 year old Henry has been living with Lance Sullivan for 9 years in which time they have never had penetrative sex. Lance is still waiting for this to happen, Henry has managed nine years of excuses why it won’t. It’s not even that Henry is uninterested in sex just that he seems to prefer looking rather than doing. If this in itself seems unlikely than the first couple of episodes stack up a whole pile of other problems Henry largely brings upon himself. Like a character in a farce he is the cause of most of his own issues. So when we join them for the typically RTD pacey opening scenes Henry doesn’t want to go out, he hates all their friends, he hates youth culture and so on. On the one hand the couple seems mismatched with different outlooks and RTD even gives them weirdly appropriate jobs with Henry in an office environment working in insurance while Lance is in the altogether more glamorous aquarium. These work surroundings sum up their characters to a tee.
Henry’s gripes are delivered with a nonchalant acceptance that he will nonetheless experience these things, is entire life seems to be something of a grin and bear it experience. In an early scene where he meets friends he actually insults them to their faces, in a jokey way and they obviously find this familiar. He is not so much a flawed personality as someone who doesn’t really know what he wants. Unsatisfied with every aspect of his life, he does nothing to change it and continues to make the same mis-steps again and again. Vincent Franklin puts his all into what is surely one of the TV performances of the year; he certainly deserves a BAFTA nomination for the role.
At work a seemingly insignificant moment where Henry lends an essay to a colleague studying for a course turns into a monster of a thing involving suicide, race, accusations and then Henry’s suspension while after a night out goes very wrong he ends up living with two much younger acquaintances in a draughty half converted warehouse. This is all presented in a cross cutting of scenarios as the colleague’s increasingly frantic calls for help are mingled with Henry dancing away in his front room to Kylie. Thus the set up is established and it does sound like a farce- middle aged repressed gay man living with two confident and sexually daring youngsters.
Two episodes in, everything seems to have gone wrong for our main character. All of this, however, is presented in a jokey, airy and frequently funny manner. Though he never says this you feel Henry is always moments from shrugging and declaring “Oh well, never mind.” In some ways the suicide plot is more daring than all the sex talk because it allows RTD to chuck in some very risky quips about religion and tradition yet you reach the conclusion that with Henry anything is possible on screen. It spins unexpectedly around with the widow suddenly making up a lot of things she alleges Henry said to her late husband things that people can quite believe he did but which he actually didn’t!
Angela Hesmondhalgh is tremendous as Henry’s sister Cleo, a real Northern earthy type who is reliable and supportive yet harsh when she needs to be. It’s a performance with subtlety and grace and some formidable shouting! Freddie Fox plays one of Henry’s new co-habitants also called Freddie and is used in the same way that an attractive female character is often seen in dramas as a sex object for all concerned. In that respect has gay drama some catching up to do? Freddie remains coolly aloof and initially dismisive of Henry yet the way their relationship evolves into a tentative friendship over the series is one of the best aspects of the writing. The other flatmate Dean seems more of a peripheral character during most of the series but is an assured tv debut for Fisayo Akinade.
This is contrasted with the carefree attitude of today’s teenagers- something picked up further in the following episode where Henry’s You Tube video sideline gets out of hand in a way that hits home. There’s a cracking scene in which Cleo fires all cylinders at her brother for the effect his videos have had on her daughter’s behaviour. The implication here is that, whatever Henry thinks about today’s young people, their lack of fear could lead them into different sorts of trouble.
The Lance/ Daniel situation develops in unexpected and disturbing ways. Daniel is well played by James Murray and is clearly a powder keg of unresolved issues and uncertainty waiting to explode. Every time Lance is drawn into his orbit you worry because Cyril Nri conveys how attracted Lance is so well and you want to say `No! Don’t`.