tue 17/09/2019

Back to Life, BBC Three review - Daisy Haggard finds laughs in prison release | reviews, news & interviews

Back to Life, BBC Three review - Daisy Haggard finds laughs in prison release

Back to Life, BBC Three review - Daisy Haggard finds laughs in prison release

Comedy from Fleabag producers introduces another damaged woman seeking redemption

Conviction: Daisy Haggard as Miri in 'Back to Life'BBC/Two Brothers Pictures/Luke Varley

Pre-publicity for Back to Life has been all about its stablemate. This new six-part comedy comes from the same producers who brought you Fleabag, and the hope is that the Midas touch is catching. It seems unlikely, on the face of it, to follow the same path from the experimental comedy factory that is BBC Three all the way to global domination. That would not be for a lack of originality or ambition, however.

Back to Life tells of an emotionally damaged single woman in her thirties on a quest for redemption. So far, so Fleabag. In fact her back story has as much in common with other dramas from the same production house: Two Brothers Pictures was founded by the indefatigable scriptwriters Harry and Jack Williams who trade in wiry mysteries such as The Widow, Baptiste, Rellik and The Missing.

Miri Matteson has emerged from 18 years in prison. Her crime was murder, although in her first job interview she breezily attempts to explain that “it wasn’t like that”. Getting out of jail is one thing; escaping the long shadow of her reputation is another. Miri, played by Daisy Haggard, is called a “sick bitch” over the phone, a “little fucker” over the hedge, and a "psycho bitch" in a blood-red message daubed on the front wall. Even her hopeless social worker has one sound piece of advice: “Do not Google yourself.” Meanwhile Miri’s middle-class parents (Geraldine James and Richard Durden, pictured below) have no idea how to be around this time-travelling returnee, treading on eggshells while hiding the kitchen knives.Geraldine James and Richard Durden in Back to LifeIt’s an unusual pitch for a half-hour comedy, especially one that is genuinely curious to explore its protagonist's psychological reality rather than simply exploit the scenario for laughs. Daisy Haggard co-wrote the script with Laura Solon, who in 2005 became only the second solo woman to win the Perrier Award. Between them they have conjured up a character who is an indissoluble mix of courage and fear. With her parents she shows cryogenically preserved traces of the sarky teen she must been before she was locked away, whose posters of Bowie and Jamie still adorn her bedroom. With the outside world she has to don a breezy mask behind which she hides a painful vulnerability.

In other hands this could easily be a gloomy drama about society's opposing instincts to judge or rehabilitate. But the comedy is carefully slotted in. There are big laughs to be mined in Miri’s 18-year deficit of experience and knowledge – her job interviewer cracks up when she says she’s also seeing Woolworth’s and Blockbuster. She hasn’t heard about the hipsterisation of Margate.

The compassionate script cannot afford for Miri to seem too damaged without risking exploitation, so there are times when she does seem too glacially untraumatised by her ordeal, as if she’s back from nothing worse than a traumatic gap year or a brief spell in rehab. Now and then the two halves of Back to Life feel just too polarised to be reconciled. There’s a desperate encounter between Miri and her old boyfriend Dom (James Michie), in which her unrealistic hopes are cruelly punctured. Strictly for lolz, the same Dom is later found to be orally pleasuring Miri’s mother.

The wintry coast of Kent provides a suitably chilly backdrop, and Siobhan Wilson's "Terrible Woman" supplies is a sombre tune to go out on. With considerable poise, and none of the gurning she deployed in Episodes, Haggard walks that line so well trodden by Phoebe Waller-Bridge between awkward comedy and deep pathos. The first episode passes a key test: you are intrigued to know more, and you care.

@JasperRees

With the outside world Miri has to don a breezy mask behind which she hides a painful vulnerability

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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