Leaving, ITV1 | TV reviews, news & interviews
Screenwriter Tony Marchant explores frustrated lives and lost opportunities
The uproarious success of Downton Abbey, now firmly established as one of Britain's great national pastimes, seems to have had the happy effect of persuading ITV1 that it must make more drama. Thus, the autumn of 2012 has been ushered in by new ITV dramas swirling about our ears like tumbling leaves, from The Last Weekend and The Scapegoat to the comeback of Downton itself.
More interestingly, the channel has also served up a batch of conspicuously female-centric pieces, albeit with mixed results. The murdered-girl story A Mother's Son felt like a series brutally curtailed by chainsaw, losing half the plot in the process, while The Bletchley Circle (about a group of brainy women from the fabled wartime code-breaking establishment trying to cope with the male-dominated tedium of Fifties Britain) was a great idea sorely in need of more time to develop. Meanwhile, Sheridan Smith continues to re-enact the chequered career of a train-robber's wife in Mrs Biggs.
Best of the lot has been Leaving, which starred Helen McCrory as Julie, the 40-something events organiser of a large country hotel in Cheshire who tumbles helplessly into an affair with 25-year-old Aaron (Callum Turner), a somewhat existential ex-student. It might very well not have worked at all, foundering on a combination of improbability and cliche, but thanks to skilful writing by Tony Marchant interpreted by a mostly-impressive cast, the end result was both touching and thought-provoking.
Having McCrory in the lead gave it a major leg-up. It's difficult to imagine who else might have spanned the polarities of the role to better effect, from the focussed, tightly-buttoned professional woman by day who turns into a dogsbody wife-and-mother by night, then suddenly finds herself behaving like a lovestruck teenager in the grip of raging hormones she'd forgotten she ever had. Perhaps it was true that, as her sarcastic Welsh boss Hugh (Celyn Jones, pictured above with Turner) told her, she'd been "a silly cow", but the more you saw of her home life with her frustrated husband Michael (Sean Gallagher) and pair of stroppy, sullen teenage children, the more sympathetic you felt to her doomed but exhilarating fling.
Marchant's theme was unfulfilled potential, viewed from various perspectives. Julie, already highly effective in her work, would clearly have been capable of far more if not chained to the weak and petty Michael (pictured slapping his wife, below), himself prey to hopeless fantasies of bedding younger women. Aaron, meanwhile, seemed to have the capacity to achieve almost anything he could be bothered to put his mind to. Since Julie was in catering, he applied for a job with her employers, and was soon being lined up for fast-track promotion and a posting to London. However, since this would have meant being apart from her, he chucked it in and opted for amateur car-washing instead.
Marchant extracted some clenched-teeth mirth from the shocked reaction of Aaron's affluent parents on discovering that his new girlfriend was closer to their age than his own, but it soon became apparent that Aaron's mother (Deborah Findlay) was feeling more than a modicum of envy for the way Julie had thrown caution to the winds and abandoned her tomb-like marriage. Her husband (Nick Dunning) insisted to Aaron that they were happy. "Yeah?" his son retorted. "Then why don't I want to be more like you?"
Eventually gravity won, as it tends to, and Aaron found himself on the outside of Julie's net curtains as she sat round the dinner table with her ostensibly reunited family. It was the kids wot done it, as a tearful Julie explained:"You can leave your husband - you can't leave your children." Spinning forward a few months, Leaving ended where it came in, with Aaron attending a wedding at Julie's hotel, except this time with a glamorous young girlfriend on his arm. Julie managed to raise a stoical smile, but you could feel her drowning inside.
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