Alan Ayckbourn, writing about creating what might be termed cerebral farce, once ventured that it “explores the extreme reaches of tlhe credible and the likely, and proceeds by its own immaculate internal logic, [to leave] the audience wondering how on earth they came to be where they are now”. Something similar is happening back in Parminster, two short years on, where a similarly skilled craftsman, Mike Bartlett, is retethering the guy ropes of credibility with the return of Doctor Foster for a second series.
It started with a light heart. Suranne Jones’s Dr Gemma Foster, the 2015 poster lass for wronged wives everywhere, was managing her own medical practice and getting on spiffingly with her son Tom, the only shadow being the imminent return of Feckless Bastard Simon, his twentysomething bride and their new brat. Still, lightness… Dr Gemma asked son Tom to take new bride Kate a present, and he asked, pithily, “Is it a bomb?”, all smiles. Even when neighbour Chris begged her, “Please … don’t make a scene! Gemma!” at Cheat Simon’s homecoming/wedding party, there was a certain airiness of touch. At least, for those who had somehow managed to forget the last soiree over which Chris had presided, a magma meltdown of revenge and spat secrets to rival the last reel of Abigail’s Party, if not the last act of Hamlet.
It was only upstairs, fuelled by wine and industrial levels of passive-aggressive goading by smug Simon and his smug new wife, that we really began to see the Gemma of old. The skull beneath the skin, yes, but also the intelligence, and the sexiness, and the cynical calculations of the doctor’s brain, quietly spinning, working out whether, in fact, squirrelly Simon had in fact suffered enough, breezing back with his mimsily pretty missus to a home town wreathed in forgetfulness and forgiveness: and concluding, gothically, No. Quite right – yet she sets about redressing matters in diametrically wrong ways, again her trademark spirited melange of forensic planning, rash spontaneity and professional foot-shootery. At one stage Gemma snaps (at a child!), “It’s not Dr Foster any more,” but we don’t learn what it is, and she has kept her wedding ring: has she been in stasis throughout, refusing herself the luxury of the hateful phrase “moving on”? The questions line up, but by the end of that fraught first hour, fag in mouth, she’s lining up syringes, and a jar of acid for the ring. And every step – the key phrase from above is that “immaculate internal logic” – credible. Just.
At heart this is a sad tale: not dark comedy, or farce, but an everyday tragedy of just how much can be invested in a relationship, a marriage, and what happens when one partner takes all that fragile trust, so vulnerably proffered – and, essentially, defecates on it. That this relatively mundane sadness has been raised so successfully to high drama is testament to the strengths of both Bartlett and Jones (who this time associate produces): it deserves to soar as it did in 2015.
Strong alcoholic drink also featured, if far more bleakly, in the other absolute standout of the week, Tin Star, in which Tim Roth excels (naturally) as Jim Worth, an ex-London detective transplanted to Little Big Bear in the Canadian Rockies. He is struggling, successfully enough and two years dry, with his alcoholism: he has a lovely, wry family, and an easy way with him, yet there are darkling hints of an alter ego. Little Big Bear is struggling less successfully with the building of a huge oil refinery, presided over by the magnificently simpering Christina Hendricks: the population is actually seen to increase, via the town-border sign, from 1,578 to 2,157 in one jump, with ramifications, via incoming ne’er-do-wells, for crime.
The opener seems to jog along in pithy fashion, nice scene-setting for Sheriff Jim’s culture-clash with the rocky-redder necks among the maples. But suddenly, there’s a savage startler, a gulper, and a boy of five is left dead, shot in the head. By the end of the second episode, Worth (Roth) is back on the whiskey. There will, surely, be revenge: the tin star on the title credits is subtly speckled with what I had thought to be rust. I have revised that thought, and this grips the windpipe already.
As doesn’t, not really at all, the return of Safe House. Fine enough cast, though Stephen Moyer has none of the subtleties of a Christopher Eccleston, opting instead for vague gruff transatlantic tree trunk. Two things are already clear: as before, the “safe” house will be set somewhere remote, fascinating, mysterious and thus not at all safe – here the Lake District has been swapped for one of Wales’s less low-key peninsular beauty spots – and the witnesses will again stupidly endanger everyone by switching on their expressly forbidden mobiles.
The new series is enlivened by the presence of Jason Watkins, Dervla Kirwan, a decent backstory, a Straw Dogs subplot. But my money’s still on the baddies rolling up, half an hour into the finale and doubtless in driving rain, past the miles of DayGlo chevrons helpfully advising “Safe House This Way”.
Back, which began on C4, can be read in a few ways. Back as in, David Mitchell and Robert Webb (left) are back, together, hurrah: the Peep Show guys reunited, and playing quasi simulacra (the sober, moral but sarky one, and the smiley shallow one). Back – as in Stephen’s dad, a pub landlord and inveterate foster father, has died, and the mourners suddenly include Andrew (Webb), who was fostered for about 10 minutes back in the lost 80s, and they will replay their memories of those days with wildly differing degrees of enthusiasm and accuracy. Back – as in, you can never really go there.
It’s a triumph, in that writer Simon Blackwell looks to be embarking on a grown-up exploration of memory that manages to be in parts explosively funny, too. Mitchell’s character (as ever) reveals himself as too clever to pull off real pathos: Webb’s (as ever) as too misguided to garner real dislike. Painfully sharp but also oddly touching, if you let it.
In contrast, the return of Cold Feet for a seventh series felt, dispiritingly… welcome enough but a bit of a chore, like the bath you can’t be bothered to get out of. Adam is still with Tina and there was some interminable stuff about moving in together that got way too specific about Manchester’s commuter routes. The good news is that Robert Bathurst’s David, often the richest untapped vein, is set fair for adventure amid the desperately rich housewives of the Cheshire set.
Diana and I, one of the better of the glut of caterwauls, was still dreadful. Purportedly a drama about the effect of Princess Diana’s death on the lives of a few Britons – a florist, a journalist, a lad whose mother had just died, an Asian bride in a horrid marriage – it (perhaps inadvertently) confirmed that, apart from direct family, the only lasting seismic effects of that week were on greedy media, grasping commerce and the emotionally already fragile.