TV review: Everyday

Michael Winterbottom's prison film was about those on the outside – and I've never felt so involved with a screen family

'What kind of music do you like?" is a fairly innocuous thing to ask, a bad-date question usually. Crucially, it's a question you ask of someone you don't know very well, someone you want to get to know better. It's a search for common ground. Here, halfway through Michael Winterbottom's film, Everyday (Channel 4), it comes weighed down with baggage, because of who's asking who (I'm not going to write whom, it just sounds tossy these days, and I'd probably get it wrong).

This is a date of sorts. Ian (John Simm) is on day release from prison; he's got a day out with his partner Karen (Shirley Henderson) and their four kids. It's them, the kids, he's asking; he doesn't know what music his children like. It's a little thing, but it's part of a much bigger thing: separation.

The answer is a telling one too: "The blues, the Beatles, Michael Jackson." This doesn't sound like the answer of kids who are aged – at this stage – between about five and 13. It sounds more like the sort of music their dad would like, and they are looking for approval, approval from a father they hardly know.

They go for a curry, then Ian and Karen sneak in a quickie while the children play in the park. After that it's back to jail for Ian, and back to their rural Norfolk dad-less home for his family.

I say the kids are aged between about five and 13 "at this stage" because Winterbottom made Everyday over five years, with four real siblings with no acting experience – Stephanie, Robert, Shaun and Katrina Kirk – as the children. It's an extraordinarily bold thing to do, with extraordinary results. There's an authenticity to it that I don't think I've ever seen in drama before. Nor do I think I've ever felt so involved with a screen family. It feels more like observational documentary. And there's a sense of real time; it's like – it is – growing up with them. Simm and Henderson are both excellent: they have a chemistry, and an awkwardness, that comes from absence. But it's the Kirk kids – the boys especially – who make this into something so real and so powerful. Something you care about.

Not an awful lot happens; at times it's pretty slow. The kids get up, clean their teeth, eat cereal, walk to the village school, sing, get into fights (because another kid said something about their dad), go to see the head. Karen works in the pub, struggles, gets lonely, sleeps with Eddie from the pub. Sometimes they go to the beach – the same one that was in Shakespeare in Love, Hilary and Jackie, Kingdom (that Lawyer show with Stephen Fry), the All Saints' Pure Shores video, loads more I'm sure … Holkham Sands is turning into a bit of a location cliche.

And they visit Dad in prison, which means taking a lot of buses, and trains, and taxis, waiting, getting searched. Mundane detail, yes, but so much about prison is mundane, and boring. The travelling is a really big deal for families, so Winterbottom makes a big deal of it.

He was commissioned to make a film about the prison system. But there's none of what you normally get in a prison drama – no canteen episodes, no exercise yard conspiracies, no shower block attacks or escape attempts. Actually, prison itself comes out of it reasonably well: the screws aren't all sadists; people aren't trying to kill each other the whole time. But what goes on inside the prison walls is not what Winterbottom is mainly interested in. We don't even find out what Ian is in for; that's not important. There are a couple of quick looks into his cell; plus visiting scenes – the awkward conversations, the slow, strangling estrangement. But the real focus is on who is left outside, Karen, and – most of all – the kids. And because of that, I think it says more about what prison does to a family than any other prison drama I've seen.

It's dead sad: Ian missing out on things, even little things like music; the kids missing out on things, massive things, like having a dad and what that does to them; Karen not coping, and copping off with Eddie. But it's not without hope. I had this terrible feeling of impending doom throughout, that it was all going to go wrong, that the family wouldn't come out the other end as a family. They do though, just about, wounded but still walking, along the beach – that beach! – together.

Contributor

Sam Wollaston

The GuardianTramp

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