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Sunday, 12 September 2021

REVIEW: Back to Life 2: Why Daisy Haggard's comedy drama is one of TV's hidden gems

In early 2019, BBC Three dropped the first series of Daisy Haggard and Laura Solon's comedy drama Back to Life. The series saw Haggard portray thirty-six-year-old Miri Matheson who returned to her hometown of Hythe after spending eighteen years in prison for the murder of her best friend Lara. The first series followed Miri as she got to grips with how life had changed since she was a teenager and how those closest to her had coped with her absence. Whilst the scenes with Miri struggling with the outside world, and her burgeoning relationship with her neighbour Billy (Adeel Akhtar), worked well there were some elements that I was less enamoured with. These included an unneeded murder mystery subplot involving a Scandinavian private detective and Miri's employer at the local chip shop trying to frame her for arson. Thankfully, series two stripped away the characters that felt out-of-place and felt more deft at balancing the comedic aspects of the plot with the darker elements. 

Set three weeks after the events of series one, series two begins with Miri beginning a job at a local supermarket whilst also continuing her relationship with Billy. However, things are not great for her as both Lara's parents arrive in Hythe to confront the revelations that were made at the last series. Lara's mother Norah (Lizzy McInnerrny) appears first to confirm with her that estranged husband John (Adrian Edmondson) was sleeping with Miri's friend Mandy (Christine Bottomley) when they were teenagers. Despite this confirmation, and Norah's willingness to leave the relationship, John's appearance in Hythe changes things and sees the couple reconcile, demonstrating the control that the former chief constable has on those around him. John's reappearance also leads Miri and Mandy to repair their relationship with the former moving in with the latter after she decides that she can no longer reside with her parents. 

The reason for this is another revelation that her mother Caroline (Geraldine James) had been sleeping with Miri's childhood boyfriend Dom (Jamie Michie) as a way to compensate for her daughter no longer being in her life. Although her husband Oscar (Richard Durden) agrees to stay with her, their relationship still appears to be fractured and he spends most of his time concentrating on getting the people of Hythe to recycle. Meanwhile, Miri continues to embrace adulthood by reopening the bank account she had as a teenager and learning to drive. Furthermore, as her relationship with Billy progresses, she has to familiarise herself with 21st century sex and unexpectedly meet his mother (Meera Syal) in one of the show's best set pieces. 

I think what works most about Back to Life is how much of a sympathetic character Miri is and how both the writing and Haggard's performance makes you root for her. I personally feel that Haggard is excellent at getting the audience on Miri's side in any situation whether its passing her driving test or confronting her new boyfriend's mother. Her comic blundering through life is perfectly counterbalanced with the touching nature of her relationship with Billy, who becomes her support network after a pivotal event in episode four. Haggard and Solon's writing makes it clear that Miri is a victim of circumstance and isn't a bad person, despite being a convicted murderer, and that sympathy is vital when it appears that she may be unfairly convicted for a crime she didn't commit. 

Although there were still some throwbacks to Miri's nineties childhood, including a Tamagotchi playing a major role in the plot, I felt that this was more toned down than last series. Similarly, the balance between the darker and lighter elements of the series was more successful in this second series. One of the best performances of the series comes from Lizzy McInnerrny who, as Norah, aptly demonstrates the years of abuse that she's suffered from John. The way she silently conveys the fear that Norah has for her adds to the domineering presence that Edmondson casts as John. I was worried about Edmondson playing the antagonist as I don't often believe him when he's cast as a villain. But here his performance suggested just some of the menace that John possessed and his confrontation with Mandy was especially sinister. 

Counterbalancing these scenes are the incredibly sweet scenes between Miri and Billy, who are now romantically attached following their friendship in series one. With both still adjusting to their circumstances, Miri as a newly freed woman and Billy as a widower, their relationship is awkward at times, however it works due to the chemistry between the performers. Adeel Akhtar underplays his role beautifully, and reminds me at times of the turn that Peter Mullan delivered in Mum. Haggard and Solon reveal more about Billy's backstory with the introduction of his monstrous mother Gaia. Meera Syal was perfect in the role of Gaia and her constant digs at her son's gardening business make Miri's take down of her more perfect. I'm glad that the series ended on a scene between the couple and I'm hoping that they will make a go of it, if Back to Life gets a third series. 

Another element of Back to Life that I enjoyed it was how beautifully it depicted the hypocrisy of life in a small town especially when there is someone to vilify. This was showcased in the first series when Miri was scapegoated by the other residents, who didn't believe she should return to the town. The same fate befalls Caroline this series after the revelation of her affair with Dom and the fact that she has contracted chlamydia as a result of this liaison. This revelation sees her shunned by the other ladies in the town despite them claiming to be part of a Christian organisation. The theme of people never forgetting is also represented through the character of Tina (Juliet Cowan), a policewoman who used to be bullied by Miri at school. Whilst Tina's constant harassment of Miri provided some comedic moments, I found her to be the only character who was slightly inauthentic. Tina's lack of policing prowess in the final episode felt especially buffoonish and seemed out of place in the authentic world that Haggard and Solon created. 

Overall, Back to Life is a series that has got stronger in its second series due to realising what worked in its first run and emphasising that more here. Almost every character is brilliantly realised, including biscuit wielding probation officer Janice (Jo Martin) who I haven't had a chance to speak about elsewhere, and even the more far-fetched moments seem authentic. If you haven't caught up with Back to Life then I would urge you to get yourself to iPlayer at your earliest opportunity as it really is one of TV's biggest hidden gems. 

Contributed by Matt Donnelly.

         Back to Life is available in full on the BBC iPlayer.

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