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Unprecedented, BBC Four review - perspectives on the pandemic | reviews, news & interviews

Unprecedented, BBC Four review - perspectives on the pandemic

Unprecedented, BBC Four review - perspectives on the pandemic

Playwrights find different ways to approach an unfathomable crisis

Lennie James as Ray in 'Penny'

This short series of new dramas (on BBC Four) by a group of leading playwrights was commissioned by Headlong and Century Films, a week before the virus lockdown was announced on 23 March, and represents an artistic first respon

se to a situation nobody can fully comprehend. As the introductory caption said, “it changed our society in a way that is… Unprecedented.”

Three separate pieces had been squeezed into this opening half-hour slot, each finding its own angle on the crisis and each featuring actors delivering their performances via the pandemic lifeline of video conferencing. James Graham’s Viral introduced us to three teenage boys unable to take their A-levels because their school was closed, and bounced between their contrasting viewpoints as they kicked around an idea to create a viral internet craze. Tyler worried about being unable to visit his sick grandmother, Louie was horrified by the new age of travel restrictions and mountains of debt, and Alex confessed he was bisexual, only to find his friends already knew. Alex’s comment that “it’s like Captain America – he went in the ice and when he came out the world had changed" concisely summed up the COVID catastrophe (pictured below, James Graham).

Lennie James delivered a virtuoso solo turn in Charlene James’s Penny. He played Ray, a homeless man who’d been moved into a hotel during the emergency. He told his story direct to camera, struggling with the unfamiliar gadgetry to get through to the unseen Penny. He was sceptical about why the authorities had suddenly decided he needed saving. “They never cared about us before, why now?… people have been distancing themselves socially from me for years.” His desperation to see Penny, his only friend, was painfully touching, especially when we discovered she was his dog.

The theory that every crisis is an opportunity informed Going Forward (by John Donnelly), which took the form of a Zoom conference to discuss the delivery of some unspecified but vital life-saving equipment. The meeting was hosted by the bullying, sarcastic Siobhan, who couldn’t understand why her suppliers couldn’t deliver everything she wanted today. One by one she dropped them from the conversation, illustrating that using smart technology doesn’t make you smart. The BBC wants to turn BBC Four into a repeats-only channel, but Unprecedented makes an excellent case for its defence.

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