words by Paul Donovan (circa 2000)
They’re young, exciting, sexy and pretty much unavoidable. Twenty-to-thirtysomething dramas have become standard issue for essential weekly viewing. Is there life after This Life? Absolutely.
This Life – much like life itself — was not expected to last forever. Nonetheless, the BAFTA-winning drama series survived for 22 episodes, attracting delight and disgust in unequal measure while becoming the defining show of the 1990s – a genre was born. A crop of twenty-to-thirtysomething dramas soon followed and continue to flourish today.
The genre has become particularly crowded during the last 12 months or so, with the continuing success of Granada’s Cold Feet (which won both Silver Rose and Golden Rose at Montreux in its first series, in 1997) as well as the birth of BBC1’s Hearts and Bones, Granada’s Metropolis and BBC2’s Attachments.
Not one to be left behind, Michael Jackson — who conceived and commissioned This Life while Controller of BBC2 in 1995 — followed suit, launching a series about scheming, attractive young lawyers (sound familiar?) with Channel 4’s North Square.
To this already impressive list might be added The Cops, the third series of which is being shown on BBC2. True, it’s about people who eat cheese sandwiches, not polenta, but it does come from Tony Garnett’s stables at World Productions (as do This Life and Attachments). It’s also a direct successor of one of This Life’s most striking features — shaky shoulder-camerawork that was sometimes as over-excited as the characters.
This Life was successful in large part because it was something no-one had seen on television before — it was innovative on all fronts, daring to take risks in its language and content, recalls Alan Ayres, BBC TV’s chief drama publicist. The scenes were shot in such a way that, as a viewer, you always felt you had walked in too late or were leaving too early, says another who worked on it during transmission in 1996-97.
Were that not enough. This Life was also shot on video and processed to make it appear as though it had been shot on film, revolutionising the medium along the way — and all this on a minimal budget.
Fundamentally, though, it was the characters who made the show. They were authentic – at least, from a twenty-to-thirtysomething point of view. They drank, smoked, swore, snorted cocaine and enjoyed promiscuous sex. They were, for lack of a better word, “real”.
The series itself was rooted uncompromisingly in reality – specifically, that of its creator. Amy Jenkins, who developed the idea at the age of 29. The script was based on Jenkins’ life as a twentysomething, when she spent her days and nights clubbing and drugging, sharing a house in Chelsea (inherited from her grandmother) with lodgers who, like her, had studied law at college – some of whom, like her, having dropped out.
The programme was the first television drama to offer a genuine voice to Jenkins’ drug-tolerant, gay-tolerant, relationship-wary, anxiety-rich, time-poor generation – and unearthed a vast, untapped audience as a consequence.
Cold feet and more
This Life arrived at a time when programme controllers were keen to attract a more upmarket audience of 18-34 year-olds, as well as looking for shows that reflected their own concerns – from juggling home and career to the (apparently endless) challenge of fidelity.
Granada’s Cold Feet, set in Manchester, met this criteria perfectly and was among the first offshoots of the This Life phenomenon. The show stemmed from the desire of its creator-writer (Mike Bullen) and producer (Christine Langan) to create a programme that embodied the aspirations of other professionals in their early thirties. The result was a series so successful that it generated its own soundtrack. The programme began shooting its fourth series in April 2001 and shows no sign of slowing down.
Others have not been so successful. North Square, Jackson’s post-This Life effort, tried to pick up on the young-lawyer theme, focussing more on the work and less on the trials of home life. It was a logical move, given that most twenty-to- thirtysomethings’ lives revolve almost entirely around work, but it didn’t capture our attention and was cancelled after only one series.
Jackson can take solace from the fact that the latest pretenders to the crown are set almost entirely in the workplace. BBC2’s Attachments, for example, takes this idea to the limit, set as it is in a start-up dot.com company struggling to get off the ground.
The programme involves the viewer not only in the daily dramas of the main characters – Will company founders Luce and Mike split up due to the stress (not to mention those affairs)? Will smarmy Jake survive his father’s disapproval? Will work experience ingenue Z oe break down completely, now that her office fling with Reece has been made very public on the Web? – it also manages to drag us into the endless grind of dot.com culture. Sex, office intrigue and downright deviousness combine to produce a very potent (and addictive) mix.
In an effort to emphasise the gritty reality of the show. World Productions has even created the website around which the company revolves www.seethru.co.uk.
According to the BBC, the site now receives about 750,000 page impressions a month – almost as many as the 800,000 a month enjoyed by Uploaded, the Web version of Loaded magazine. At least the characters didn’t have to go through all that drama for nothing…
The latest addition to the genre is Channel 4’s sublime schoolroom-and-beyond comedy- drama, Teachers. Filmed in a recently closed school in Bristol, Teachers follows a group of twenty-to-thirtysomething secondary teachers in the classroom and beyond. As an added benefit, the show’s main protagonist, Simon, is played with almost disarming ease by none other than This Life’s Andrew “Egg” Lincoln. As with others in the post-This Life pack, the characters are authentically gritty, although it’s difficult to imagine teachers like these anywhere in the country. They smoke (both cigarettes and joints – occasionally with their students), drink (often in frightening quantities) and enjoy enthusiastic sex lives, occasionally with one another (part of their on-going efforts to settle down while avoiding growing up).
Teachers does differ from others in the club in that its use of comedy, often moving into Ally McBeal territory (including momentary lapses into fantasy, flashbacks and dream sequences). Early flashes of Simon’s co-worker Jenni in PVC S&M gear will remain imprinted on the public consciousness for years to come.
More important, the show is honestly funny – that alone should guarantee a longer shelf-life than most of its competition.
Art Imitates This Life
This Life may have shifted British television drama in an entirely new direction and produced a string of similarly-flavoured programmes in its wake, but it also helped boost numerous careers. Amy Jenkins famously won a £600,000 two-book deal and wrote the screenplay for Elephant Juice (director, Sam Miller, also directed much of This Life). In addition, Daniela Nardini, who played ambitious barrister Anna, has progressed to other well-received dramas, including as Big Women and Rough Treatment (in which she played an army officer who is the victim of rape), while Jack Davenport (who played the much maligned Miles) co-starred in the feature film, The Talented Mr Ripley.
Despite the obviously successful lineage, there are those who still insist there is no similarity between current twenty-to-thirtysomething dramas and This Life.
World Productions’ Tony Garnett, executive producer for Attachments (as well as This Life, The Cops) for example, is reluctant to enter the debate: “I don’t talk about other people’s shows. All I would say about my own is that This Life, The Cops and Attachments are three completely different shows. Anyone who sees any similarity between them must be either blind or deaf.”
Executive Producer of Teachers and a veteran of This Life, Jane Fallon is another who cannot see to comparison, stating in a recent interview that Teachers is “more like Attachments” because of its young-versus-old storylines.
Ultimately, however, both series (not to mention Cold Feet and North Square) cent around a group of largely confused, profes twenty-to-thirtysomethings in their on-going quest to make sense of their lives and the v they have inherited – and that’s pure This Life.