Saturday, 23 June 2012

Review: TRUE LOVE (BBC1)

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Here's an abject lesson in how to waste potential, if ever I saw one. True Love could have been a small-screen drama-heavy version of Love, Actually (there are signs it wanted to be), but for some inexplicable reason writer-director Dominic Savage largely chose miserablism. I like the basic concept, though: five half-hour love stories, broadcast across four nights, with a few characters straying into other episodes, all set in the seaside town of Margate. And look at the fabulous cast assembled: Doctor Who's David Tennant, Inside Men's Ashley Walters, Secret Diary's Billie Piper, Ab Fab's Jane Horrocks, State Of Play's David Morrissey, EastEnders' Lacey Turner, Downton Abbey's Joanne Froggatt, This Is England's Vicky McClure, Skins' Kaya Scodelario, Star Trek's Alexander Siddig, Fresh Meat's Gemma Chan, Nil By Mouth's Charlie Creed-Miles, Call The Midwife's Jenny Agutter, and Kidulthood's Jaime Winstone. It was a veritable who's who of veterans and rising stars, but their presence gave false hope. True Love, taken as a whole, stank.

"NICK" *½ (out of four)
I was going to try and pin-point why True Love failed, for the most part, but there's actually a multitude of reasons to take your pick from. Chief amongst them was the awful, half-improvised scripts (artistic flourish, or desperate attempt to salvage something from the project?), which came riddled with clichés, repetitive ideas, and tin-eared dialogue. We all know love isn't a bed of roses, and is a painful experience when it goes wrong, but for a summertime show airing across consecutive evenings, something more feel-good would have been preferable. Instead, True Love was too keen to explore negatives. We had Nick (Tennant) having an affair with his first love Serena (McClure) behind his wife Ruth's (Froggatt) back; then there was carpet warehouse manager Paul (Walters), likewise having an affair with a woman (Winstone) behind his wife's (Turner) back because she waved at him from a bus window. If you need to differentiate the two opening stories, Paul's was the one that ended gloomily instead of abstrusely.

"PAUL" * (out of four)
Next up was perky English schoolteacher Holly (Piper) having an affair with a pupil called Karen (Scodelario); the lesbian angle employed to make the situation more palatable than the obvious alternatives (a male teacher lusting after jailbait, of either gender). To be fair, Holly's story may have lacked courage, but Piper and Scodelario's chemistry together worked a peculiar kind of magic.

Then we met middle-aged Sandra (Horrocks), a gift shop owner stuck in a loveless marriage with David (Miles), the man Holly was sleeping with in the previous episode, who seized a chance to escape her ennui with dashing toilet cleaner Ishmael (Siddig). Horrocks brought a lot of sincerity to a thin role, but by this stage it had become clear each vignette isn't going to amount to anything stimulating. Given its concept, it's a shame the stories weren't interconnected to a far greater extent, if only to answer various questions. I mean, did David have sex with Holly because Sandra left him for another man? Or was he already seeing Holly behind his wife's back, making him a hypocrite?

"HOLLY" **½ (out of four)
The final story concerned a lonely divorcee called Adrian (Morrissey) who started corresponding with a girl called Kathy (Chan) online, who's living in Hong Kong, but decides to meet him during a trip to Europe. This was far and away the best episode of the run, possibly because Morrissey's the best improviser (most dialogue didn't sound half-baked for once), but mainly because the core story had some meat on the bones. The quality of this serial led me to believe Adrian's story would be a humdrum case of his internet lover being a gold-digger or scam artist, but the story avoided that pathway very nicely. Instead, Adrian's chance of true love was endangered by the romantic advances of schoolgirl Lorraine (Jo Woodcock), best-friend of his lesbian daughter Karen from Holly's story. That wrinkle even managed to knit two of the episodes together in a fun way, as one assumes Lorraine's infatuation stemmed from seeing her friend start a relationship with an adult. While hardly a remarkable piece of TV, the final episode of True Love was at least satisfying and ended the serial on a pleasing high note.

"SANDRA" *½ (out of four)
But, no matter that every episode was drizzled in love songs from the Heart FM jukebox, True Love was mostly too dull to make the human heart swell. Its saccharine love ballads were used multiple times throughout episodes, too, as if to manipulate our emotions because the story and performances couldn't be relied on. Watching a plethora of good actors struggle with bad or partial material was painful enough, and each actor didn't really get a chance to stretch themselves here. Having actors improvise rarely works, because most rely on clichés and half-forgotten dialogue from previous projects, which bubble up in their subconscious. (Turner was almost literally quoting an old EastEnders script in her heartfelt climax with Walters, for example.)

"ADRIAN" **½ (out of four)
The only good news is how viewers demonstrated excellent taste with their treatment of the show. The Tennant-headlining premiere opened to a respectable 3.11 million viewers on Sunday evening, only to tumble each day to a Wednesday night low of 1.49m. I can't say I'm surprised, but it's nice to know audiences saw through the stellar cast and picturesque cinematography. While it looked gorgeous and promising at first glance, without compelling and inventive scripts there was nothing in True Love to keep you anchored.

written & directed by Dominic Savage / 17-20 June 2012 / BBC1