Darkly challenging drama, or just dull and dramatically challenged? Reviewers are supposed to be able to make their minds up about things like this, but so far this Eddie Izzard-led school reunion piece is doing a good job of defying judgement.
The first 10 minutes contained three normally sure-fire signs of weakness. First was the gratuitous nude shot of Izzard (good for pre-show publicity), then came the Snatch-style credits introducing the characters (a job normally done by a good script and direction). Finally we had the Unusual Form Of Transport (a beautiful old Mercedes soft-top), quick-and-easy proof that talented-but-nasty ad guru Ralphie (Izzard) really was an Unusual Form Of Bloke. Oh dear.
Things didn’t get much better as Ralph drove his UFOT to Bristol in response to not being invited to his old school reunion, then didn’t sleep with his old girlfriend Anita (Nimmy March), and didn’t turn her back on to their old coke habit, either. The dialogue was a bit stilted, the camerawork was a bit shaky (but that was probably deliberate), Izzard’s acting was a bit on the right side of fellow stand-up turned straight-man Alan Davies, and the “I’m clean now, Ralphie, so piss off” argy-bargy with Anita was getting just a bit repetitive.
But then we were suddenly into a whole new ballgame featuring Rob, Ralph’s old classmate and now a meat-pie magnate, who saved an illegal immigrant from a sweatshop then let her repay him by recounting the graphic details of her torture while he screwed her. This time the nudity was entirely integral to a taut, unsettling story about repression and exploitation, with terrific performances from Hugo Speer as Rob, Kerry Fox as his pill-popping wife Maggie, and Amira Casar as victim Kristina.
Then we were back to the class reunion, with not nearly enough of the excellent Adie Allen as foul-mouthed former head girl Joanne, and thecustard.tv’s favourite enigmatic fat bloke, Mark Benton, as a fat bloke who’d returned to Bristol from a high-powered London career for enigmatic reasons. By the end, we’d had another dose of largely unfathomable argy-bargy between Ralph and Anita, a mystery accident to Rob, more oo-arrr “Bristol” accents than an early episode of Casualty, and more dark, treacherous undercurrents than the Severn Estuary off Avonmouth Docks.
With two more episodes to go, it remains to be seen whether 40 can pull it all together, or whether it will remain just a patchwork of darkly interesting (and not so interesting) ideas. Either way, it’s got us (just) hooked enough to want to find out.
Everything comes to (s)he who waits. The first part of 40 had us all indecisive about whether it was great televisual art or a great pile of pants, but by Thursday’s final frames things were a lot clearer. Not that they hadn’t been a lot muddier in between, especially on Wednesday when things suddenly went seriously time-shifted, starting three months before Tuesday’s Class-of-75 reunion party, then jumping back to it, and beyond it, and quite possibly into another time dimension altogether during the bits when we weren’t paying proper attention.
“Things aren’t what they seem,” emerged as the drama’s major theme; Anita’s request to Ralph hadn’t been what we thought, Jess’s injuries weren’t caused by who we thought, and Rob’s car crash wasn’t what we thought either. Detective stories thrive on this sort of thing, of course, but good ones do it by giving the audience reasonable grounds for misinterpretation; 40 tended more towards simple withholding of the facts, giving the impression that they were just messing us about. Combined with all that time-shifting, it created a state of confusion in which it would have been all too easy to pass off a series of dead-end, largely unrealised plot ideas as a cohesive dramatic structure, and there’s a sneaking suspicion that that’s exactly what it did.
Suspicions also remained about the validity of what was, in places, a fairly violent and sexually explicit piece. As so often, there was a lot more female nudity than male, but there was also a distinct sense of hierarchy about the women’s unclothing. Apparently it wasn’t essential to the show’s dramatic integrity for the likes of Joanne Whalley and Nimmy March to go naked, even when they were supposed to be having sex, but it was for the less established, more easily exploited actresses, even when they weren’t. That left us wondering which definition of “essential” applied to the shock-horror-titillate scenes in which women were f**ked like animals by a man who reached orgasm at the height of their degradation, not to mention the breast-shots of the girl who was portrayed as being 15 years old.
There were good points. Joanne Whalley had real presence as the darkly turbulent Jess from Easton (the district where Holby City ambulances fear to go), and the degradation scenes ended with a genuinely shocking sting in the tail (a Bafta for best use of the line “I am a doctor!”, surely). Meanwhile, Gregory (our favourite fat bloke) fathered Anita’s child and regained the love of his partner, although how he managed the former with his underpants on remains a mystery. In the end, though, 40 petered out rather aimlessly, as if it didn’t really care about its characters’ fates because it didn’t really believe in them in the first place. By the end, neither did we.