First thoughts on Normal People

28 Apr

Recognising a few drawbacks of my pull to the darker side of TV drama (Scandinoir has run its course but there’s always Netflix and my Sopranos box sets) I’m seeking out more wholesome fare.

Two examples being The Detectorists, a slow burn treat which took me an episode or three to get into, since when I’ve watched them all at least twice, and the splendid pairing of Mortimer and Whitehouse in Gone Fishing; its real life premise two blokes my age who, following major heart surgery, visit soothing waters to do what it says on the tin. The rest is a joy, whatever our views on angling. A joy moreover, as a pal observed, which works on many levels.

Both deserve a post of their own but that’s for another time. Here my subject is Normal People. Of which, though all episodes are available on iPlayer, I’ve only seen two. No danger then of an inadvertent spoiler.

It’s a tribute to the power and beauty of sex and romantic attachment that anyone of my age, which hit puberty and all it entails in the latter half of the sixties, ever managed to get to know the bliss of one of life’s great delights. True, the Beatles were singing All You Need is Love, but the message struggled to be heard by a generation whose exposure to sexuality (barring puppy love pop, which grew more carnal as the decade advanced) had only two real social inputs.

On the one hand we had Judaeo Christianity, exemplified for me by a Rhonda Valley Methodist house parent at my children’s home, a man who hinted darkly at untold damage to vision from “playing with yourself too often” – without specifying optimum levels. On the other were older boys, sixth formers who’d belt out rugby songs from the back of the school bus. One or two I still find funny – Ivan Skavinsky Skavar has its moments – but most were vile in their misogyny and violence. Dinah Show Us Your Leg was downright nasty. Worse still was The Valley Where I Laid Her Down, its last verse telling, to roars of seat thumping enthusiasm on the upper deck of a bus rigidly segregated by unwritten law – boys up, girls down – of postcoital strangulation.

I soon shook off the Methodist/Baptist side – those guys never could hold a candle to Jesuit led left footers on that score – but the other half of this life negating dialectic hung around a while longer. I was Saved, if Saved I ever was, first by acid and attendant worldviews; a little later by feminism. These days I have criticisms of both, but for all that my gratitude is real and undying.

But do I paint too dark a picture of the bad old days? When I look back I marvel at the wisdom, handed down by successive generations of school girls, of the emissary approach. Adolescence being a time of excruciating insecurity – and school a bear pit, though the comparison does no favours to the ursine – a lass in 4A fancying a lad in 5B might get a friend to sound things out.

Thus would it come to pass that Steve was stopped on the corridor by Kate for his reaction to the idea – purely hypothetical of course, hence low risk – of Going Out With Val. It had to be this way round, naturally. What teenage lad in his right mind would confide such love interest even to a close mate, far less invest in said mate the role of faithful ambassador?

So even in the dark ages of pre-feminist school culture, ways and means existed to soften and in some cases bypass altogether the worst consequences of those minefields of crush and lust, fraught as they were with the perils of rejection and humiliation. Which brings me, at long last, to the BBC drama, Normal People.

Let’s get one minor carp out of the way. While our screens repeatedly offer superb child actors, we rarely see late teen roles filled by players who more or less look the part. Normal People is no exception: Connell as male lead in particular – a sixth former who looks twenty-five if he’s a day. It took me a good two minutes to get over this impediment to full immersion.1

But this really is top stuff. All I’ve been speaking of is explored here with exquisite tenderness. The sex scenes are erotic to be sure – I could almost taste those first kisses – but more than that, piercingly vulnerable. First love is rarely shown more authentically, nor more poignantly observed. I’m hooked, yet fearful of what may lay ahead when, as the older and allegedly wiser of us have learned, the course of love doth ne’er run smooth.

* * *

  1. One day later: I’ve seen two more episodes and this now looks to be a tale set over several years. If so, the choice of twenty somethings rather than teenagers would make sense. Or maybe in our times of heightened sensitivity, having sex scenes with actors not far north of the age of consent is more trouble than it’s worth.

15 Replies to “First thoughts on Normal People

  1. I enjoyed Ivan Skavinsky Skavar, Eskimo Nell is good wholesome stuff too ..moose or two and a cariaboo…
    My teenage daughter is into old Rocky movies at the moment. I never realised there had been so many of them! I sit and watch them with her and tease her regarding Stallone’s laconic charm. Women can be difficult to work out sometimes – even at 13! Personally, I’m a big Tracy Beaker fan, in the original and updated formats. A confession which I’m fairly sure will set somebody’s alarm bells jangling.
    Can anybody tell me what ‘Killing Eve’ is about?

    • Ah “Killing Eve”. My wife will kill me for saying this, but I reckon KE is glitzy superficial rubbish with a massively amplified soundtrack, all of which is an attempt to convince you that this psychopath who kills without reason is a real cute funky gal. The WSWS had its number:

      (I give my tuppence worth below under the name “George”) But you’ll note the dreary formula of depicting Russia as a grimy run down place.

      Speaking of which, my wife is also a fan of “Breaking Bad” which I also found nauseating (and which has clearly inspired KE).

      • I reckon KE is glitzy superficial rubbish …

        Me too. Series 1 was good, 2 getting thin, 3 absurd – surreal as John Steed’s Avengers but less enjoyable. And what a waste of fine actors! Speaking of whom, one key to the drama’s appeal is surely the incredibly mobile face of Jodie Comer as Villanelle.

        I blame the pressure to come up fast with sequels for unexpected hits.

        my wife is also a fan of “Breaking Bad”

        Me too. Granted, it’s darkly amoral but – like the Sopranos and Mad Men – shows just how good the American Studio system can be. With a vast canvas, and writers not overworked the way their Brit counterparts tend to be, all these series have the space to explore depth and nuance of character in ways that continually surprise us but without cheating.

        • I will grant that “Breaking Bad” is beautifully filmed, skilfully scripted and excellently acted. But I’ve never seen a series that left such a bad taste in my mouth. I felt there was a very shallow and slick grand guignol misanthropy about the whole thing.

          And I had trouble getting past that early episode where Walter White goes to a reunion of old college pals who actually offer to pay for his cancer treatment. I know there was supposed to be bad feeling between him and them but it couldn’t have been that bad since he went to the reunion. Just think of the murder and horror that could have been avoided. Granted there wouldn’t have been a series. But this get-out-clause that wasn’t taken casts a whole different light on the WW character i.e. if he never had the option, it would have made him much more sympathetic. And it seems typically American that there is this option of a way out that is refused thus making all the ensuing carnage a consequence of “sinfulness”.

        • Further on “Killing Eve”: For some reason I enjoyed the second series more than the first. However, both clearly demonstrated the “cliff-hanger clause”. This is where a series ends on a cliff-hanger to try to ensure another series. One season of the fantasy vampire series “True Blood” ended with no less than four cliff-hangers, all unleashed one after the other in the last couple of minutes. Such twists nearly always have a desperate contrivance to them. KE may be the worst I have seen. The first two series ended with pretty much the same twist: the two main characters meet but then one wounds the other and they split again. I wonder how many times they will play that out?

    • Mick, as with many a memorable film, I first saw Rocky 1 at the fabulously baroque flick house in Keswick. Over the years I’ve seen a few crackers there – Emperor of the North (Ernest Borgnine v Lee Marvin) and American Beauty (Kevin Spacey and Chris Cooper) to name two.

      See George’s comment and my response for our takes on Killing Eve …

  2. Forgive me, Philip, but I’m a bit behind. “Scandinoir”? Is that like “The Killing” with the woman with the Val Doonican look?

    Yes box sets are one of the few ways to escape from these grim times. I’m currently revisiting the utterly absurd but entertaining “Jonathan Creek”. Like a lot of those shows, I didn’t realise before how thoroughly middle class it was. Even leaning a bit on the aristocratic side. The rare prole is usually portrayed as a nasty piece of work.

    • The Bridge and the Killing (its US based spin off included) were great. But the genre – played out in Ireland, France, Holland, Italy and doubtless other places too – has been worked to death. In any case, as with Detectorists and Gone Fishing, there’s much to be said for TV that’s uplifting, while my admittedly small sample to date of Normal People suggests it might actually have somethijg to say.

  3. For a spot of escapism from the current 24-hour coverage of the ongoing clusterfuckery, Mrs J & I have been heading to the past: first Summer of Rockets by Poliakoff, which was marvellously eccentric and strangely addictive; now Mrs Wilson, which after a single episode (out of just three) already has us hooked. I *loved* Breaking Bad, partly because of – rather than despite – its upended moral universe; and am looking forward to Normal People, on the basis of this two- (really single-) paragraph review above. Cheers!

    • … this two- (really single-) paragraph review …

      Bit of a habit of mine, that, Steve. Not that I’m apologising. I think the lead-in relevant, and I dare say you’ll find more conventionally structured reviews aplenty in MSM.

      I should have mentioned: Normal People is an adaptation of a novel. By a woman of course.

      Here at Steel City House we too enjoyed Summer of Rockets, despite formulaic aspects, in part because I knew Linus Roach from our time together in a spiritual boot camp. I did see Mrs Wilson and remember its premise, but little detail. Which says precisely zilch of its quality. If distracted – a writing piece I’m chewing over, say – I’ll watch on autopilot. It’s a tribute to how much good TV drama is out there that I can be following several series at a time and easily drop one, however brilliant, through sheer absent mindedness.

      Oh, and I binge-watch. Sometimes, especially in the post adrenalin slump after travel or writing, I can be all day in front of the telly. Shakespeare centennial time, I watched The Hollow Crown – all six hours and not for the first time – stretched out on the sofa one wet Sunday. Days later a pal showed up from Barcelona, a true believer, and we did the same again – also in a single day – stopping only to crack a beer or make a sandwich. We had subtitles on to savour to the max that searing dialogue. I await with mounting excitement the moment when, with maximum psychological impact, I can come out with “why strewest thou sugar on that bottled spider?” The arachnid in question being Richard the Third played by The Cumberbatch, his winter of discontent delivery simply the best. As for Sophi Okenedo, she’s so smoulderingly regal I quite forgot to object to a Margaret of Anjou unlikely, on balance of p, to have been black as the ace of spades.

      • Binge watching box sets seems to be the new way of viewing. It’s curious to think of how this affects the reception of a series. In the (good?) old days, you had to watch one episode at a time and wait for week in between – which gave you more time to assimilate and reflect. Perhaps the series would “sink in” better that way? The thing I’ve noticed about binge watching is that it’s like a short term addiction. You stuff your face with a series and love it intensely but a couple of days later, you feel almost a senses of self-disgust as if you’ve just devoured a box of chocolates in one go.

        • I never get the disgust. It’s a way of watching that suits my lifestyle. I put in at least a forty hour week as steel city scribbler, though my hours are hardly nine to five. Being retired, if I want to get up and write at three am, I do so without hesitation. And after working intensely on a flurry of posts, I’m more than happy to binge watch for hours on end as body, soul and writing engines renew themselves.

          This would work less well I’m sure if I didn’t also walk for hours most days, usually with the woofers. I do though, so no complaints from me. And zero post-binge remorse.

          • I admit that part of my problem is that I do tend to watch crap e.g. “Game of Thrones” (or “Tits & Dragons” as Ian McShane so rightly called it).

            • Well if it’s confession time, I’ll pass an idle hour on Marco P over at Netflix. It’s formulaic, its eponymous hero absurdly handsome, and full of scenes of nubile women as nature intended. Delicious, but not the stuff of binge. Mildly diverting won’t cut it. To go genteelly square eyed, hour after hour, I must be gripped.

              It doesn’t have to be great drama, mind. Line of D or Peaky B will do nicely, and I’ve watched all series of both at least twice. But it does have to keep me hooked.

              My soft spot in that regard is adversarial dialogue. Line of has edge of seat interview scenes, full of turning points as a steely Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar, another Hollow Crown escapee) turns the screws on bent cops. Peaky B sees Cillian Murphy on terrain – the intrepid and brilliant man of low birth sticking it to his social betters in the 1920s – stomped by James Bolam in the seventies drama, When the Boat Comes In. (Come to that, isn’t this what Mantel does on a posher level in a different era with Tommy Crommy?) Peaky’s plotting is preposterous but Murphy as Head Blinder has cracking lines.

              Speaking of James Bolam, a Likely Lad, I’m often struck by how well comedians do when they go straight. I’ve seen Rik Mayall, Harold Corbett (the Son in Steptoe &), Norman Wisdom, Lenny Henry and others of their stripe utterly convincing – the first two chillingly so – in thriller or other non comedic forms.

            • “When the Boat Comes In” was one of my parents’ favourites. Bolam was very versatile. One from slightly later was “To Serve Them All My Days” based on an R F Delderfield novel and starring the immensely likeable John Duttine. Unfortunately that one seems to have been snipped for the US channels (even tangential references to sex must be obliterated!) and it is this neutered version that is now on DVD release. My all-time favourite is “I Claudius” which was based on Suetonius’s “Twelve Caesars” which might be described as the muck raking tabloid journalism of its time. (Not even “Game of Thrones” ventured to give us what Caligula did to his sister!)

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