Life episode 1, review, BBC One: Alison Steadman steals the show in this Doctor Foster spin-off
Remember Doctor Foster? It was the hysterical (in every sense of the word) melodrama starring Suranne Jones as a wronged GP wreaking vengeance in the Home Counties while drinking industrial quantities of white wine. Bertie Carvel was the slimy husband you loved to hate, with Jodie Comer as his unfortunate new love interest. And then there was the woman who lived over the road, whose name – Anna – and precise role in the plot you have most probably forgotten.
But writer Mike Bartlett loved Anna’s character so much that he has put her in Life, a new six-part series. Bartlett says Life “shares a universe” with Doctor Foster, which is to say that Anna appears in both. But it is otherwise wholly unlike its predecessor, in that everyone is sane and nobody appears on the verge of committing drunken murder. Instead, it’s a likeable ensemble drama closer in tone to Last Tango in Halifax or Cold Feet, which is slightly less fun but much easier on the blood pressure.
The set-up is a large house in Manchester that has been converted into flats. One of them is home to Anna (Victoria Hamilton), now a pixie-cropped divorcee who for some reason is going by the name Belle. Upstairs we find Gail (Alison Steadman), who is approaching her 70th birthday and lives with her husband, Henry (Peter Davison). Then there is David (Adrian Lester), an English teacher who married his childhood sweetheart, Kelly (Rachael Stirling). Finally, Hannah (Melissa Johns) is about to have a baby conceived in a one-night stand with Andy (Calvin Demba). The plots are separate, although in episode one the characters met each other in passing, and not all are created equal.
You have to feel a bit sorry for Hamilton, because while this has been touted as her spin-off show, Alison Steadman steals it. That’s partly because she’s Alison Steadman, and partly because her storyline is the one that punches through. Gail is a dutiful wife, mother to two grown-up children, who has convinced herself that she has a happy and comfortable life. But she has a dreadful, controlling husband. Not the kind of monster you might find in one of the soaps, but the type who belittles and undermines through jokes and smiles. It’s a great performance from Davison, who doesn’t overplay it but immediately gives you the measure of the man. And Steadman, who is rightly known for her comedy chops and is fixed in many people’s minds as the OTT Pam in Gavin and Stacey, has the chance to show her range here.
In this opener, Gail had a chance encounter with an old school friend, who told her a few home truths. It proved to be a wake-up call. “I used to do things. I was head girl. In a band too… I smoked pot!” she told her family, who had spent so long taking her for granted that they simply scoffed. Steadman quite brilliantly conveyed the sadness of a woman who has lost her spark. At her birthday celebration, she gave a speech and you willed her to tell Henry she was leaving him. But she didn’t, because that’s not how real life usually goes. Every one of Steadman’s scenes had a ring of truth. Anna’s story also lived within the realm of possibility: single and lonely, so desperate for a man that she sabotaged the electrics in a bid to seduce the electrician, and bearing the responsibility for a mentally unwell sister and troubled teenage niece.
But the other two strands had more of a Richard Curtis air to them, which is to say the situations were unlikely and the characters unlikelier still. I won’t spoil David’s story, but the scene in which a sexy Mancunian stranger turned up at his holiday home and seduced him probably isn’t the sort of thing that happens to most middle-aged men. As for Andy, sweetly shopping for nursery items with the woman he accidentally got up the duff and secretly still likes, while she plans to bring up baby with another man – how saintly can a person be? It felt as if we had known some of these characters for ages, even though Anna was the only one we had met before.
We have always known that Bartlett, an award-winning screenwriter and playwright of note, can do startling subject matter, from Doctor Foster to King Charles III. But here he excelled with a study of middle-class life and longing across the generations. The series is available to binge on iPlayer, although you might prefer to take your time. Where Doctor Foster had you on the edge of your seat, Life is a show that encourages you to sink into the sofa and enjoy it.