Sarah Lancashire is a first-rate actress, but she’s in danger of wasting her talent on second-rate roles. Birthday Girl was a case in point. Billed as a daringly humorous piece in which she played a leukaemia sufferer hiding the recurrence of her illness fr
om her birthday party guests, it turned out to be a predictable run-through of every cliché in the “thirtysomething friends” chapter of the TV drama instruction manual.
The supporting characters followed the rules by comprising the dependable gay male friend (every girl needs one), a successful-but-twisted alcoholic sister (every girl doesn’t), two mates-with-issues for additional mouthing-off, and a softly-spoken young Irishman for the bittersweet love interest. There was even the regulation Unusual Mode Of Transport, a motorbike with sidecar owned by the dependable gay friend.
This lot (bike included) did exactly what you’d expect of them, and nothing more. The sister behaved atrociously, the mates fought but made up and the terrible secret was exposed, sending Lancashire out into the garden for the heart-to-heart scenes. The acting was straight out of every other northern England drama, (Cutting It meets the Braithwaites), while the writing simply ticked the boxes (lighthearted girly shopping scene, serious talk from dependable friend, you’ve-always-envied-me sister showdown).
In the end, Lancashire, having dismissed the love interest, realised her mistake and was ferried round to his house in the DGF’s sidecar. They went upstairs to get it on, while their dogs (the cause – how original – of their first meeting) snuggled up on the sofa. Yuk.
The obvious comparison is with last Tuesday’s Wit, in which Emma Thompson played a dying cancer victim. That left you feeling you’d had a brush with cancer yourself, and would never feel quite the same again. Birthday Girl’s use of leukaemia as a premise was so thin and poorly explored as to be mildly insulting – you felt she had it simply because the writer – Jonathan Harvey of Gimme Gimme Gimme fame – needed something on which to base the situation.
Sarah Lancashire famously doesn’t do nude scenes, but that shouldn’t mean she has to do endless bland ones. She recently announced that she’s not renewing her golden handcuffs deal with ITV, which sounds a wise move if this is the sort of thing they’re lining up for her. She can do a lot better.