This Life: Life goes on
Up close it looks like a normal, if rather high-powered, literary event. We’re in the hall of the British Library. On stage is Mark Lawson, the nation’s undisputed master of cultural ceremonies, holding aloft a new book and chatting breezily to the thirtysomething celebrity author sitting alongside him. In the audience, a hundred or so metropolitan sophisticates listen keenly to the discussion, occasionally raising their hands to ask questions. And yet, the author sitting on the podium is no household name, at least not in this life, but Edgar Cook, better known to you and me as Egg, the character played by Andrew Lincoln in This Life. And some of those faces in the audience look familiar: the tall, slim, Glaswegian woman who asks a question about “post-feminism”, the earnest Welshman in the front row enquiring about gay representation, and the aloof, monied playboy at the back. For I’m on the set of this Christmas’s most hotly anticipated reunion, BBC2’s 90-minute drama special – This Life: Ten Years On.
Milly, Egg, Warren, Anna and Miles – the names are enough to transport you back in time. Britpop was in the air, Cool Britannia was on its way and John Major’s tired, squabbling government would soon be trounced by a New Labour party led by a young, messianic Tony Blair. Even the death of Diana, plunging Radio 1 and every other broadcaster into Soviet-style mourning, only seemed to amplify the sense that Britain was in the grip of cultural and generational ferment.
Now that filming has finished on the new episode, and its broadcast is just a few weeks away, fans of the series will be racking their brains, wondering just (omega) what has become of them all. Has Miles’ marriage to Francesca survived? Are Milly and Egg still together? Has Warren entered a civil partnership? Is Anna still on two bottles of Soave a day? Having researched a book on This Life and read the script of the new episode I can offer a few hints without spoiling it. And how’s this for starters: only one of them is still a lawyer.
But why does it matter? What is so important about a drama featuring five law graduates sharing a house, and why should we care how the characters are surviving 10 years on with such diverse phenomena as mobile phones, reality television, biological clocks and the war on terror?
Before it came along, television did not do plausible twentysomethings. But This Life spoke to a generation that had traditionally been ignored or patronised. It all began in March 1995 when Amy Jenkins, a young law graduate, sent in a pitch to the BBC via Tony Garnett’s World Productions, entitled simply “Legal Series, a proposal”. A year later the series aired on BBC2, initially to low ratings and dismissive critics. Here was a gang of endearingly cynical, overworked graduates, having to hold down jobs as professionals, take pills, smoke weed, have casual sex, convince juries, and remember to wash up and buy bog roll. Between the four walls of that rambling Southwark house we had Warren the gay Welshman, Anna the Scottish femme fatale, Milly who was Asian and a little bit neurotic, Egg the northern football lad, and Miles the public-school wanker. To describe the concept now sounds ridiculous, or in the words of Jack Davenport – who played Miles – “shamelessly tokenistic”. It shouldn’t have worked. But over 32 episodes, the characters wormed their way into our lives, with their irreverence, nudity and great one-liners. Anna was the undoubted star, her don’t-give-a-fuck attitude and capacity to self-destruct, the savage sarcasm and quick wit – all with a hint of vulnerability – making her impossible to ignore. Her savage on-off relationship with Miles is what one remembers now, and actor Daniela Nardini’s acid inflection transformed lines that could have seemed cheesy into exocets aimed at Davenport’s groin:
Anna: What did I see you in? What did I see that made me think we could ever have a relationship?
Miles: You don’t want a relationship, Anna, you just want to cut my balls off.
Anna: Well, I’d have to find them first.
And yet Miles just couldn’t help himself, and in the penultimate episode uttered the immortal line: “I love you Anna. I always have and I always will.”
Then there was the soundtrack. Executive producer Tony Garnett – a veteran of shows such as Z Cars and Cathy Come Home, and series producer Jane Fallon decided there would be no incidental music. Instead, Fallon’s partner, a certain Ricky Gervais, who was working as a DJ at the time, chose bands to go with each of the characters. So while Egg had rockers Reef and Northern Uproar, Milly got the melancholy Bristol sound of Portishead and Massive Attack.
When series two reached its crescendo, the nation was gripped – even if the Daily Mail’s reviewer wasn’t exactly thrilled: “I caught the final episode and was appalled at the drugs, booze and worst of all simulated sex between homosexuals…” For many of the 5.6m viewers who watched that last cataclysmic episode where Miles married the wrong woman, Egg dumped Milly, a pilled-up Ferdy and his Scottish plumber had sex in the toilet, while on the dance floor Milly punched Rachel, it was unthinkable that there would be no more This Life. The then BBC2 controller Michael Jackson thought so too, waving huge cheques in front of Garnett to make another series. But he and the actors turned the Beeb down, and instead of the anticlimax of a third series, the show’s legacy was safe.
So what have we missed in the intervening 10 years? Miles has been to Hong Kong, made his fortune with a chain of boutique hotels and is now living peacefully with his wife in the country. He rides horses, drives a Range Rover and votes Tory, none of which should come as much of a shock. Meanwhile, Milly has left the law and is living in Stoke Newington with her environmentalist partner and their baby Josh. We find Warren more New Age than ever, working as a life coach, popping vitamins, practising yoga and singing the praises of Botox. Anna is the sole surviving lawyer, a high-flying barrister, who is desperate to have a baby but worrying that she’s missed the boat. Meanwhile, Egg, who we last saw whipping up lasagne in a little café, is not only a publishing phenomenon – but get this for post-modernism – being followed around by a documentary film-maker.
Already the alert reader will have guessed that their reunion is explained by a rite of passage – in fact it’s the death of Warren’s ex, Ferdy (played in the original series by Ramon Tikaram). The premise is this: none of the main five have been in touch for years. They see each other at Ferdy’s funeral and shortly after Egg’s interrogation by Lawson, arrange to meet up at Miles’s country pile. The scene is set for a weekend of warm nostalgia, good food and cosy fireside chats. Except it doesn’t quite go to plan.
Just like their characters, the cast have had varying fortunes, since 1997. Davenport has been in the Talented Mr Ripley and Pirates of the Caribbean, Lincoln in Love Actually and Daniela Nardini the British movie Festival. Jason Hughes (Warren) has been in Midsomer Murders and various big theatre productions, while Amita Dhiri (Milly) has appeared in some television, and had (omega) a baby. But one commentator argued rather harshly that in coming back they are finally accepting their fate and will forever be typecast as Egg, Anna et al.
In the event, it took Garnett about a year to pin them all down to a month when they were free. But why come back? “How many times are you going to be in a television series that people still want to talk about 10 years after it first went on air?” asks Davenport. Then there is the affection they feel for each other. “Once we’d all got together and shared our thoughts,” says Hughes, “and there was a script that we all liked, it became clear that we’d all do it.” And having turned them from unknowns into stars, they seem to hold Garnett in great esteem. “Tony made this speech,” recalls Lincoln. “He said, ‘Don’t think I haven’t been approached every year by people trying to get the series back on TV. But I think the story idea is very good and I do think people want to know what’s happened to them all.'” And Lincoln agrees that the story has been skilfully updated: “Amy’s done so many clever looks at celebrity and what it means. And in a very delicate and rather endearing way she’s poking fun at what happened to her and what happened to society as a whole in the last 10 years.”
On the set, it seems at first sight that none of the actors have changed much. They all (bar Amita Dhiri who is not involved today) look surprisingly fresh-faced and young, and you sense the chemistry born of shared experience. Lincoln clowns around, his laughter infectious. Hughes is understated, engaging, down to earth. Perhaps Davenport is the most altered. His hair is an expensively caressed mullet, not unlike Pat Cash’s barnet. He is a man in a hurry, self-possessed, confident, and rather like Miles in his desire to flirt and tease Nardini. His character’s look and tan says (omega) comfort, wealth, “I’ve made it”. And the actor’s self-assured manner points to his time spent with the likes of Johnny Depp and Matt Damon. But Nardini is still the one that catches the eye. Luckily for her, Anna’s dress sense has taken a turn for the better – she is elegant in black, and beautiful now rather just striking.
It turns out that Lawson, who is much taller in real life than you might imagine, was a fan of This Life and watched every episode. When the scene begins, he sounds just as he would on Newsnight Review, while Egg has become a bit pompous. Nardini’s voice retains its gravelly charm, and when she asks a question her enunciation of the phrase “sexual appetites” seems to echo around the library. The take finishes and Lincoln jumps up to mop his brow. Garnett looks down from the staircase like a proud father, while behind me a soundman mutters “not bad for no rehearsals”.
So what will it be like? There’s a lot of incongruity, as most of it has been shot in Sussex. Here are these relentlessly urban young professionals of the 1990s suddenly appearing with wives and children in the kitchen of a country house. There are horses in the paddock and the reassuring drone of Radio 4 in the background. There is a guest cottage down the drive, but no cottaging. Even the sex carries the pastoral whiff of leaves and pine.
And while a drama series with 45-minute episodes can intercut different storylines at will, a Christmas special is a different kind of beast. This is melodrama, not “intelligent soap” as some critics labelled the original series. Davenport admits the change is potentially problematic: “The new script is good but you’re making a mental leap with it, and one doesn’t want to shit on one’s own doorstep. It’s gone from something with no discernible plot to a classic three-act structure.”
Amy Jenkins, who wrote the new episode, has always been identified as the creative genius behind the show. But it should be said that while she invented the concept, characters and many of the storylines, she was no longer writing This Life when it became more popular in series two. Interestingly, the new episode conforms more to early episodes – self-consciously contemporary and angsty with its references to therapy, unlike crisper, darkly humorous episodes penned by later writers such as Richard Zajdlic.
Zajdlic believes it will be hard to revisit the show, seeing it as a footnote to the original: “Whether it’s very, very good or very, very bad, I don’t think the new episode will change what has gone before as it’s a single piece written 10 years on.” Jane Fallon also has her doubts. “I’m a bit sceptical – it was so of its time.” Not only was there the music, the sense of cultural change, but also the disorientating camera movement, which seemed fresh in the mid-1990s and which has become a cliché all of its own. “And how do you get those characters together in a believable way?” asks Fallon. “We quit at absolutely the right time.”
She has a point. The Britain of the late-1990s was a different world, where Damon Albarn popped into the House of Commons for G&T with John Prescott, and Noel Gallagher chatted over champagne with Tony Blair in Downing Street. It all seems a bit hollow now. Another worry is whether the main five characters can hold their own in the country without the wonderful stock of office characters – the apparently principled but sleazy boss O’Donnell, Sarah Newley, the lesbian solicitor hoping for sex in return for handing out cases, and Hooperman the reformed alcoholic head of chambers, delegating from his treadmill.
In fact aren’t they all taking a huge risk? “There is an element of fear,” admits Davenport. “It’s a bit like Spinal Tap’s last tour that they should never go out on, course there’s that. But it’s a one-off.” Hughes is more direct. “I don’t think it could spoil it. It can be a full stop. This is where the story ended. Here they are 10 years on and farewell.” Couldn’t they keep doing this every 10 years like a fictional 7 Up? “That feels a bit scary actually,” says Dhiri. “The time feels right now, though.”
And Jenkins rejects the notion that taken out of their 1990s context, Egg, Milly et al will be like fish out of water. “I’m not trying to recreate that feel, I’m writing about now,” she says firmly. “The anniversary show is saying here are these people from the 1990s, this is what happened to them, and here’s what they have evolved into. It stands in its own right, it doesn’t try and say anything spectacular about life.” This last point seems contradicted when a bit later she talks of the show’s first steps into politics: “It’s very nerve-racking, because I have done a scene where they discuss Iraq. In the original they didn’t talk about politics but I think my generation has been politicised by the war.”
So how have they and, by implication, her generation, changed? “When you’re 25 you think you’re never going to become a grown-up and have a say in the world, get on the ladder, have a house. It seemed the older generation would never move over. But in my experience, it does happen, and likewise those characters are now grown up, and some are earning lots of money.” But there’s a trade-off. “They’ve lost their intimacy, the connection that they had in the old days when they were struggling in the outside world, at least then they had each other.” In the end it’s about falling out of friendships and trying to rediscover them: “They come back as a group, and have to readjust to being around each other again and having…” she hesitates, momentarily self-conscious, “that love.” And so of course, will we.