Two programmes, one past and one to come, point to a Channel 4 energised by the cauterisation of Big Brother, with promise of a return to a mission to educate and agitate. Its decision to ask the world’s most determined homosexual rights campaigner, the Aussie-Brit Peter Tatchell, to do an hour-long programme on the Pope on the eve of his visit to Britain (The Trouble with the Pope, C4, this Monday evening), plunges a gay dagger into the adamantine heart of a splintering church headed by a reactionary priest. Any programme pre-condemned by the former minister Ann Widdecombe, the journalist Cristina Odone and the composer James MacMillan – without benefit of viewing – as “venom … so repetitive that it has lost any potency it once had” (MacMillan) is worth watching. This column is review, not preview, so suffice it to say that though not without some preening, the programme is a direct confrontation with the sometimes murderous dilemmas the church poses for its followers and for secular life.
This is England ’86 (C4 Tuesday) is a four-part drama developed by the filmmaker Shane Meadows from his film This is England, released in 2007. It’s a continuation, three years on, of the life of one of the groups in the original, bleakly emotive movie – the group that veered away from the racism of a former leader to find some solidarity in a northern England suffering the peak of 1980s unemployment. “Solidarity” is too detached: love is what they agree they feel, once the word has been broached by one of their number, recovering from a heart attack. “I f***ing love ya” is what Woody insists to Lol, after he has been rendered speechless by the registrar’s request that he say “I do” at their wedding. His speechlessness, he struggles to explain, was prompted by the sight of his father, once a bold rocker, now cardiganed: the end of outlawry.
Meadows’ writing doesn’t care about what his characters don’t care about – politics, or whether there is such a thing as society. They construct their own sub-society, patched out of scraps of convention (such as marriage), anarchic horseplay, and stabs at an authenticity constructed from style, language, banter and aggression. It mixes violence with comedy: a bully forces Shaun – main protagonist of the film as a 12-year-old and of the series as a school-leaver – to tell the bully’s object of desire she is a fat cow, so that he can defend “her honour”. It backfires, of course.
All the main channels have announced big drama offerings for the autumn: BBC1 will do Sebastian Faulks’ first world war novel Birdsong; two short series, Paula Milne’s White Heat (BBC2) and Ronan Bennett’s Undisclosed (BBC1) are advertised as “blurring the line between the political and the personal”, an approach that is often unhappy; besides This is England ’86, Channel 4 has an adaptation of William Boyd’s novel Any Human Heart; and ITV1 will show Downton Abbey – promising a reprise of the 1970s drama series Upstairs Downstairs in an Edwardian country house – plus the one-off dramas Joe Madison’s War and Albert’s Memorial (this Sunday: see TV Choice), and a much-needed new detective two-parter, DCI Banks: Aftermath, based on the novel by Peter Robinson. The first of the new season to appear has been Bouquet of Barbed Wire (ITV1 Monday), a reinterpretation of the early 1970s interpretation of Andrea Newman’s 1969 novel of that name.
The first adaptation, which made actor Frank Finlay a household name and face and which was generally described as “steamy” and “a breakthrough”, was fairly faithful to the novel – in which Peter, a happily married publisher, destroys his life through his obsession with his daughter. He has an affair with his secretary (presented as a stand-in for the daughter), his wife has an affair with the daughter’s husband (whom Peter hates), and the daughter dies after giving birth. Clive James, then a TV reviewer, wrote that “everybody slept with everyone else, except the baby”.
In the reinterpretation, the doom gathers quickly – indeed, is previewed in a flash-forward, when Peter (Trevor Eve), reskinned as an architect in present-day London, is called to a crash, which may be fatal and may involve his daughter (Imogen Poots). Back again to “the present”, and the father’s need to be adored by a virginal daughter is shattered by her eager carnal love for a teacher (Tom Riley) at her school; by the teacher’s rebarbative mockery of his in-laws to be; the daughter’s pregnancy; by their setting up house in a run-down council flat; by the revelation of the teacher’s violent nature. Peter grabs a young assistant and half-rapes her in the office; he rapidly descends from hatred through bribery to contemplating physical threat, even murder, of his detested son-in-law.
There wasn’t a dull minute, which is what melodramas should be like – and everyone has by no means yet slept with everyone else. The remake has decided to concentrate on the drama, and cut the mellow – the latter, in the novel, being some reflections on the efforts of women to escape from the assumptions of a subaltern role in public and even private life. That was then: this is 2010, and the daughter’s mixture of passivity, kittenish-ness and manipulation seem a bit passé, as does the teacher’s casting as a spoilt girl’s DH Lawrence. But it will wrench your gut, break your heart and damn your eyes.
More columns at www.ft.com/lloyd