Marriages put to work

In every episode of Roger and Val Have Just Got In (BBC2 Thursday), Alfred Molina and Dawn French bicker in various rooms of a house for 28 real-time minutes. The bickering doesn’t escalate. The mood is one of mutual irritation and frustration rather than, say, anger that might shade into domestic abuse or spousal murder. The setting, suitable to scripted back-and-forth but with a lived-in rather than a plywood feel, suggests the programme’s conflicting impulses, torn as it is between mockumentary on the one hand and sitcom on the other, between realism and fairytale.

This, we are to conclude, is an ordinary marriage, albeit one in which every obstacle is rather easily negotiated. Roger and Val wind each other up and let each other down, but conflict usually gives way to compromise. In this week’s episode, Roger felt that Val had over-reacted to the news – news to him too – that he has a son from a previous relationship; but he was willing to put aside all grievances to smile and make small talk, at a dinner with her colleagues, for the sake of her career.

Achieving the right balance between work and life is hard in every television marriage. In some cases getting the balance right can be crucial to the health of the programme itself. The revived Upstairs Downstairs (BBC1 Sunday), for example, has been in danger of letting affairs at 165 Eaton Place take a back seat to Sir Hallam’s work, which, given that he is a diplomat and the year is 1938, has proved intense and time-consuming.

But this week’s episode, an improvement on the first, though still not nearly good enough, made a better job of mixing the ingredients. Sir Hallam’s marriage to Lady Agnes emerged as something that would be tested and proved in terms of her support for his career. Admittedly, this theme didn’t deliver much in the way of dramatic conflict or tension. “I want him to go where he’ll be valued and protected,” Lady Agnes told the Duke of Kent, insisting that she would follow him to the ends of the earth. Later in the episode, he assured her that “I would go anywhere with you.” Well, that’s settled then.

During a dinner at Eaton Place, one of the guests, the young John F. Kennedy, suffered a bout of nausea – a reminder to viewers that the confident quiff and gleaming smile were just a front for a man who, in his physical frailty and vulnerability, made Franklin Roosevelt look like Barack Obama. The Hollands’ butler was appalled to hear the cook addressing a guest as “dear”, after Kennedy came downstairs in search of baking soda and “wahter”, but she replied that he was just a “poorly young man who needed looking after”.

Of course, with a cocktail of pills inside him, JFK was fully capable of looking after, and out for, himself. Flying into the newly renamed Kennedy Airport for the first time, in the final episode of Pan Am (BBC2 Saturday), the pilot Ted gave some thought to the late president’s set-up. If Kennedy managed to be a frat boy behind closed doors and a family man in public, then why couldn’t he marry a woman he knew to be a lesbian while having – permitted – affairs with other women? Of course, for all the series’ heroising of Kennedy and glamorising of the last months of the Kennedy era, the behind-the-scenes truth about JFK’s marriage to Jacqueline Bouvier would hardly have received approval in a programme so rose-tinted, and the episode ended with the Pan Am gang toasting the arrival of 1964, with Ted in a happy, monogamous relationship.

Bill Clinton treated Kennedy as a model in all kinds of ways, as the four-hour documentary Clinton (PBS UK Saturday-Sunday) made clear. It also made clear that his marriage to Hillary Rodham has had, over the years, a whiff of the “partnership”, if not the marriage of convenience.

The programme was impressive but hardly unimpeachable. Crucial names (Ricky Ray Rector, Juanita Broaddrick, George Stephanopoulos) and events (the break from Stephanopoulos and Dick Morris) went unmentioned. But it touched on some matters with great authority, thanks to terrific talking heads. The idea of Clinton’s presidency as a golden opportunity ruined only by partisanship and scandal was exposed as the nonsense it is. His charm and savvy came with a large helping of naivety and myopia.

And Clinton’s use of Hillary was shrewder at some points than at others. It made sense to have a woman so brilliant – and, though the programme underplayed this, ruthless – always on his side, but it was damaging to have her always by his side. A strong wife equals a weak husband, or so the American people decided. In such moments, Hillary was simply packed off.

But when it mattered, when, for instance, her husband was accused of having sexual relations – however construed – with an intern, it was Hillary who was sent to the studio of NBC’s Today to speak in his defence. OK, so it turned out soon enough that the president, always economical when it came to the truth, had sent his wife to face the public with her illusions undisturbed. But then what marriage was ever perfect?

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