At long last! A brilliant BBC drama about normal people: It might be everyday stuff, but it delivers a frisson of shock too… CHRISTOPHER STEVENS reviews Marriage
Marriage, BBC1, last night
Do not adjust your set. Emma and Ian are ordinary people – and, whisper it, they’re starring in a BBC drama.
They drive an eight-year-old Ford Focus. Loading the dishwasher is a nightly ritual they could do blindfolded.
They holiday on the Costa del Sol, but stick to ‘normal restaurants’.
There are millions like them. These are the people of Middle England – the mainstay of the nation. But the Beeb drama department rarely acknowledges their existence.
Couples in prime-time serials are expected to have bifold doors opening onto landscaped gardens with firepits and off-road parking.
Where’s the designer fridge? The marble-topped island? Where’s the wine rack? Is that a bedroom without an ensuite bathroom? Am I really watching THE BBC?
The only hint of fantasy in this depiction of suburban life is the casting. Emma is played by Nicola Walker and Sean Bean is Ian.
I suspect almost every British woman of a certain age, however posh, would settle for a lifetime of holidays in Torremolinos if it meant sharing a bed with Sean.
In BBC1’s Marriage, Emma is played by Nicola Walker (left) and Sean Bean is Ian (right)
The likes of Emma and Ian are usually seen only in sitcoms such as Two Doors Down.
It’s telling that Marriage is written by Stefan Golaszewski, best-known for the poignant comedy Mum, starring Lesley Manville.
Laughs are sparse in Marriage, though you’ll find a few hidden gems.
In one wordless vignette, as the pair watched TV, Ian tipped his slippers off and stretched his toes.
His wife said nothing, just a sideways flick of the eyes. But it was enough. Like a draught under the door, he felt the disapproval and wriggled his slippers back on.
It was a perfect evocation of a relationship so close that each one knows what the other will say before they’ve opened their mouths.
But, despite the love that wraps around them like a duvet, there is a lot of tension in this marriage.
In the opening scene, at an airport restaurant on their way home from Spain, they seemed to be arguing over nothing.
Ian fancied a jacket potato, but Emma came back with chips. And the sachets of ketchup were 30 cents each.
That was enough to set off sniping and recriminations all the way to the gate and onto the plane.
By the time the seatbelt signs came on they were hissing f-words at each other.
As the layers of their marriage slowly peeled back, it became clear that they were returning to a home stacked high with the debris of old problems.
It’s all terribly sad and sadder still for being so mundane. Life’s like that, of course – our unique sorrows are incomprehensible to outsiders, however wearily commonplace they are to us.
It’s telling that Marriage is written by Stefan Golaszewski, best-known for the poignant comedy Mum, starring Lesley Manville
Some of their mess was predictable. Ian doesn’t have a job – he’s been made redundant, and the holiday came out of his pay-off.
His working day now consists of picking up litter, watering the rhododendrons and lurking at the gym, trying to strike up conversations.
Emma is a solicitor, but in a shabby, two-room business above a shop, not a high-energy City firm with glamorous clients.
A running joke about her new jacket, bought at a discount online, seems like a deliberate dig at Walker’s character and her power suits in the much more opulent BBC drama The Split.
Other sources of strain well up from deeper, darker crevices. Neither Emma nor Ian – nor their grown-up daughter Jessica – is able to talk about a terrible bereavement.
Again, this is not made explicit but we guess the couple have lost their son as they sit in the cemetery, lost in grief, and then walk back to the car making the smallest of small talk – should they get a packet of peanuts for Jessica’s homecoming or is it worth the extra quid to buy cashews?
It might be everyday stuff, but it delivers a frisson of shock too.
We spend so much of our lives in front of the box, but this time it feels as though the TV is seeing us too.
The story of Emma and Ian is somehow utterly absorbing. What a pleasure it can be to peek into lives more like our own.
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