A Life of Bliss

TV Review
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The Independent Culture
Leslie Bliss is a man so beset by bashfulness that he even gets embarrassed in his own company. At the beginning of Bliss (BBC2 Sun), Les Blair's witty and humane slice of metropolitan life, you see him ducking his head shyly after soliloquising before the grave of Dr James Barry, the transvestite Victorian who concealed her sex in the interests of her career. "Dr James Barry," mumbles Leslie to the headstone, "Couldn't marry/ Because he/ Was a she./ RIP." Leslie's gait, just one element of a beautifully observed performance by Douglas Hodge, is the flinching crouch of those who expect nothing from life but a clip round the ear.

This conversation consists of a series of modulated apologies - "I'll just come up for a couple of minutes" he says, after a neighbour urges him to join a party and when he's asked what he wants to drink he instinctively translates it into a rebuke: "Sorry, I didn't bring anything." Leslie even says hello in a parody voice, as if he wants to be able to deny that he really meant it if things go wrong.

Then he encounters Julia, one of those exhausting women who give vivacity a bad name. Julia, a.k.a. Simone Marcelle, a writer of erotic fiction for women, is psychotically giggly and completely unsuitable. For almost anyone, as it later turns out, but for no one more than Leslie, with his passion for GK Chesterton and the unthreatening celebrities of Kensal Green cemetery. He is a social leper but the film teases you with the possibility that she might be a sexual St Francis. "Don't you ever go there to fuck," she asks slyly, in a characteristic piece of verbal flashing. Douglas makes a faint croak, as if he has a popcorn husk lodged behind his epiglottis, and changes the subject: "So, who's your favourite author, then... of all time?". The line is perfect in its scrabbling desperation and in that abject codicil, a hapless recognition of the conversational crevasse that has just opened up.

The drama didn't have a plot exactly. Like previous Blair films it began, watched closely for a while and went after some things had happened. Like life, it had more cul-de-sacs to it than through roads, never quite arriving at anything that felt like a final destination. But it did have calculated movement, a finely-plotted way of playing with your expectations. Just as you were thinking that the relationship between Julia and Leslie was too fanciful to be sustained, the narrative came clean, revealing that this had always been a cat-and-mouse game, an entirely credible encounter of bored flirtation and reckless need.

In any case there is little need of plot with something so meticulously imagined and acted - from set-dressing (the Forbidden Planet bag which Leslie uses to wrap a romantic gift) to dialogue (it catches perfectly the way that phrases thrown back at people in arguments reveal most by what they've had added to them). What's more, every character became more complicated over the course of the film , provoking you into an act of judgement, rather than a mere acquiescence in a writer's pre-determined verdict which is more often the audience's lot. In his final misery, bloodied and humiliated, Leslie hovers uneasily between the repellent and the touching - you want to slap him and soothe him at the same time.

Bliss was also very funny, in case it isn't clear - subtle, farcical and surreal by turns. I won't forget the hilarious dream sequence in which Leslie's wistful lust combines with his ambition to appear on Mastermind, so that Magnus Magnusson's magisterial authority is weirdly turned on private desire. "Would you read a Simone Marcelle novel in public?" he asks with that familiar urgency. "Er... yes", lies Leslie. "No. The answer is no," replies Magnus, as certain as the Creator himself.

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