Talking about my generation

The innovative series 'This Life', written by young people, with young directors and a young crew to boot, is back for a second prime-time series. But are all twenty-something lawyers obsessed with sex and drugs? Nick Hasted asks the actors
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The Independent Culture
'I wanted to give a voice to my generation," said Amy Jenkins, 29, when the first series of This Life aired last year. "Because they've never had one on television." The series she'd devised had its roots in demographics, as much as art. It was the BBC2 controller Michael Jackson's decision to make the station's first "continuing drama" about people in their twenties, targeting young viewers attracted by hits like Shooting Stars. But it was Jenkins, a trainee solicitor in the City until she gave it up to write, who made the series what it quickly became: one of the most subtly innovative shows of last year. Set in a City law firm like the one Jenkins escaped from, centring on five housemates beginning their legal careers, its characters were a careful cross-section: Miles (Jack Davenport), from a well-off background; Milly (Amita Dhiri), an Asian woman in a long-term relationship; Warren (Jason Hughes), a gay man from a Welsh small town; Egg (Andrew Lincoln), Milly's partner, who realises he doesn't want to be a lawyer, and quits; and Anna (Daniela Nardini), a single, sexually adventurous Scottish woman.

It could still have been the yuppie soap from hell. The immediate reaction of viewers was often hostile. Its characters could seem like spoilt, moody rich kids (at least prospectively), obsessed with drinking, sex and their careers. The series' twitching, NYPD Blue-style camera work could be distracting. Over an episode or two, it could seem that nothing much was happening - that it was going nowhere. But over the course of the first series, those criticisms were revealed as This Life's strengths. Its characters were often dislikeable, but deliberately so. They were flawed. The series' limited run meant it didn't need the cycles of crisis and resolution which power soaps. It used this freedom to avoid happy endings and, sometimes, any endings at all. When Warren told his brother that he was gay, the brother, a sympathetic character, listened to all the arguments against his prejudice, ignored them, and went back to Wales. Milly and her boss spent weeks building up to an affair, then decided against it. The dramatic force of the final episode, when every hanging emotional strand was brought into play, was considerable.

Despite the inclusiveness of its cast, This Life also largely steered clear of the "issue"-based drama of EastEnders or Brookside. Its characters' generation made subjects which would otherwise be thought sensitive, matter- of-fact. Warren's friends didn't give his homosexuality a second thought. Milly's ethnicity has yet to be mentioned. The nearest the series came to an explicit social point grew naturally from its characters' age, when Anna found herself defending a drug-dealer she'd bought an E from at a club the night before.

This Life was sometimes as irritating as anyone in its generation can be. But it wasn't predictable. It wasn't always comfortable to watch. And, it turned out, it wasn't over. A second series, twice as long, was commissioned as soon as the first series' success became clear. Amy Jenkins has moved on. But everyone else is still aboard. It's four weeks into its 21-week run. And in a west London studio, cranking out episodes against the clock, the house is back in session.

Meet the actors, and one reason for This Life's success becomes obvious. Daniela Nardini (Anna) and Andrew Lincoln (Egg) are handling interviews. Nardini, more nervous than her sarcastic character, still lets the occasional barb fly, and Lincoln, guilelessly talkative, is like a more confident Egg. They're not only sympathetic to their parts, but to each other. They should be. The producers spent more than a month looking at actors before casting. And, once the house was assembled, another week was put aside to make the actors as intimate as the characters. "We know an awful lot about each other's lives," says Nardini. "I'm spending more time with these people than with my family or friends." "We all support each other," Lincoln agrees. "We're good mates." All of the cast are in their twenties, all are at the start of their careers. They're at the same place in their lives as their characters.

That camaraderie has been needed for the new series. Twenty-one episodes instead of 11, they're filming "quicker than a porno movie, but with sound", according to Davenport. There are now 15 regular characters instead of the original five, a decision made from fear that the housemates on their own would become boring. The intensifying drama of the first series, largely the work of the departed Jenkins, has been lightened. The "issue" of Warren's sexuality has been brought centre-stage, with his arrest for cottaging. Like the first series, things may kick in later. But for the moment, its schedule makes it resemble the word its production staff seem terrified of using: a soap.

"I'm not going to mouth off saying, 'Oh, it's a continuing drama,' which is apparently what we're supposed to call it," Lincoln responds. "In my off-days, you go, 'I just want to get out of this fucking soap.' That's just because the turnover's what a soap's would be. But I know the script- writing's not like a soap's, I know the directing's not. I hope the acting isn't." The producer Jane Fallon's previous job was on EastEnders, of course. "I don't know," he says, as Fallon walks past. "I can't say anything about that. I'll be shot!"

Soap or not, both actors are convinced of the series' worth. "I think there's a lot of intelligence there," says Nardini. "It doesn't try to make monsters or victims out of its characters. It shows people who live in a city and behave badly sometimes. It shows people who take drugs and don't die. It's trying to be realistic."

"Everyone seems to be into it," Lincoln adds. "It's like a breath of fresh air for a lot of young people. They go, 'Great! Young people! On TV! Talking about shagging!' I found it really astonishing going out clubbing when the first series finished. People came up to me like they knew me, people were going, 'Jesus, man, I'm having the same thing, la la la... you and Milly, man.'"

Lincoln's character, Egg, is This Life's litmus test for viewers over 30. Though he began as a lawyer, he quit. Relying on his girlfriend's income, he made a vague attempt at writing a novel, then gave up. People who are used to a career as an end in itself are going to think he's a waster. Lincoln is more sympathetic. "I'm playing somebody who doesn't really know what he's doing in life," he says. "He's not a stupid human being, but he's made a choice to look at what he really wants. He's stepped back to be in control of his own destiny, and he's the only one in the series who is, because he's so uncertain of what he wants to do. I know so many people like that, because I'm 23 myself. I hope that it's quite a truthful portrayal of that age-group."

What may really ensure that This Life is looked back on in years to come, irrespective of its dramatic merits, is that in an industry where serving your time still counts, it isn't only the actors who are under 30. Directors, writers and crew are, too. In a way that has little precedent, This Life is blooding a generation. The actors can only speculate on the reasons, and count their blessings. "These sorts of opportunities for a lot of us within a year of starting, it just doesn't happen," says Lincoln, "especially to do something about ourselves, about young people. I feel like I've done a rep in a year-and-a-half, in TV. It's almost like a shake of the hand, and off you go. Welcome to the business."

There are rumours that when This Life's second run finishes, the house may be broken up, more new blood brought in. The actors haven't a clue. They're only shown scripts three episodes in advance. But even if they do go their separate ways, they're sure they've been part of something special. "I can speak for everyone in the cast and crew," says Lincoln seriously. "We're all very proud of the work that's been churned out." He catches himself. "Churned out being the operative words!" Then he has to go and lie down. When you're churning out classic TV, you need all the rest you can get.

'This Life' is on BBC2 tonight at 9.45pm