Those of us who fell for Him & Her and Mum will have done so because of the unique writing from the creator of both shows Stefan Golaszewski. Both shows showcased his knack for realistic dialogue. Though both were billed as comedies they were both really character studies. Mum, in particular, was often sadder and more profound than most dramas. Golaszewski’s scripts have a lovely rhythm to them. His incredible ear for dialogue means that his characters speak in such a way that it can often feel like you’re just eavesdropping on two people in everyday conversation. Those of us who loved his first two shows will find a lot of what he perfected, particularly in Mum, on display in his first true drama Marriage on BBC One.
Those who are less familiar with what has come before might find the show, and the way it operates a little harder to grasp. I feel slightly sorry for those people. The marriage of the title is that of Ian (Sean Bean) and Emma (Nicola Walker). When we meet them they’re approaching 27 years together. The four-part series revels in just spending time with the couple, without there ever feeling a need for huge moments or jeopardy. We’ve become too accustomed to our dramas building to the next big twist but the draw here for me and for actors Bean and Walker is that this show looks at the intricacies of marriage without the need for melodrama.
We meet them returning from a holiday in Spain. Ian picking at Emma because she refused to ask the waiter in the airport restaurant if her husband could have a jacket potato rather than chips. His frustration with her grows as they queue to board and bubbles over as the plane starts to take off. The row between the pair becomes quite heated, it’s then we see the pair clasp hands and realise his agitation is less about the potato and more a way of dealing with his fear of flying. The brilliance of the show is how it makes these little moments feel important. That’s the magic of it.
Ian has only recently been made redundant and is struggling with filling his days. He goes to the gym but feels inadequate and out of place. He potters in his shed and waters the garden but is unhappy. Emma is ambitious at work but never rubs her work in Ian’s face.
It’s a show about little moments. A show that feels like a character study of these two particular people at this particular time in their lives. When they walk holding hands in a graveyard, sit on a bench and each burst into tears, it’s incredibly moving even if you’re not initially sure who they are grieving for. When they visit Emma’s father Gerry (James Bolam) the simmering tension between father and daughter is palpable but never directly addressed with Ian busying himself in the kitchen making tea, whilst Emma tries to tell her disinterested father about the holiday they’ve just had. She leaves seething that he hasn’t asked about them, moaning about how difficult her father is to talk to but never really stops to talk about why that is.
At the heart of things, like Mum before it, Marriage excels when it drills down into how difficult it can be to be ourselves even with the ones we love. People find things difficult and don’t really know what they feel. They often don’t know what to say to each other. Ian and Emma are comfortable enough with each other that they’ll load the dishwasher in silence, watch TV without feeling the need to pass comment or moan and pick at each other when something niggles them.
When their adoptive daughter Jess (Chantelle Alle) visits with her new boyfriend Adam (Jack Holden) Emma picks up on the fact that neither is drinking and that Adam is cocky and controlling. They sit and have dinner, exchanging awkward pleasantries until they wave them off and Emma lets her true feelings known. Golaszewski, who also directs the series, is very good a zeroing in on the vulnerabilities of his characters.
Jess is in a controlling relationship. The abuse and control lurk just under the surface with Adam putting her down, losing his temper and questioning her on marriage. Ian’s vulnerabilities are far more obvious. Without a job he feels purposeless and when he finds that Emma has been spending time with her younger boss Jamie (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) he’s worried. In other shows, you’d expect Emma and Jamie to be having a steaming affair behind Ian’s back but Golaszewski doesn’t subscribe to the normal troupes of drama.
It goes without saying that Sean Bean and Nicola Walker are phenomenal as Ian and Emma. You immediately believe them as a married couple who have gone through periods of great happiness and great sadness and when we meet them, they’re just muddling through trying to make the best of their lives.
Marriage offers a snapshot of an ordinary couple at an interesting place in their lives. It’s warm, engaging and rooting, as the best dramas are, in humanity. Though some might be put off by its leisurely pacing, I found it impossible not to get swept up in the characters and their struggles and its ability to make the mundane so interesting and nuanced.
Marriage is available on the BBCiPlayer on Sunday 14th August