The after-Life of their dreams

Nick Hasted on how Miles, Milly and friends became top of every casting director's list
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The Independent Culture
It is almost two years since This Life's house of fractious lawyers broke up in scenes of swinging fists and acrimony. Its five million fans pleaded for a third series, in vain. But the actors, writers, directors and producers behind the show's innovatively messy, realistic look at twentysomething life - almost all under 30, few of them tested in television before - instead went on to something better. Life after This Life for all five main cast members has been good. In the blink of an eye they went from unknowns to the new, healthy backbone of British drama.

Their ubiquity in the coming weeks is absurd: Andrew Lincoln (slacker icon Egg) is in Justin Kerrigan's E-generation-defining Human Traffic; Jack Davenport (surly Miles) will soon be seen with Gwyneth Paltrow, Cate Blanchett and Matt Damon in Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr Ripley; Amita Dhiri (uptight Milly) has just finished her run in ITV's The Last Train; Jason Hughes (Welsh gay Warren) is in rehearsals for the National Theatre's Don't Look Back In Anger; and Daniela Nardini (acerbic, oversexed Anna) has become a true TV star in Big Women and Undercover Heart. Even the second-string ex-Lifers can do no wrong. Natasha Little (enigmatic bitch Rachel) went on to star in Vanity Fair.

The show blooded its writers and directors, too. Jack Davenport starred in Ultraviolet for writer/director Joe Ahearne and executive producer Tony Garnett; The Last Train was written for Amita Dhiri by Matthew Graham. Nardini's stardom was sealed by Undercover Heart (producer Jane Fallon) and her next project will be Elephant Juice, written by Amy Jenkins, directed by Sam Miller. Life alumni, all.

The actors still socialise; Lincoln, Davenport and Nardini are fast friends. They feel bonded. The web of influence has spun out more subtly, too, to Tony Garnett's similarly innovative The Cops, and the second series of The Lakes, both with Life writers. "These sorts of opportunities for so many of us within a year of starting, it just doesn't happen: everyone else is in soaps," Andrew Lincoln observed as the series was filmed. "It's almost like a shake of the hand, and off you go. Welcome to the business."

None of this was accidental. "There was a conscious effort to seek out new talent," This Life's producer Jane Fallon confirms. "We were given the opportunity to do what we wanted, we didn't need familiar faces to pull punters in. For the writers and directors, I wanted people who I thought would be sympathetic to the material. With characters that young, it's difficult to get people to empathise with them if they've been in the business for years and they're earning lots of money. But also when you have a chance, you should really try to give people a break, to see what they can do."

The remarkable consistency of everyone's work since, and the singular radicalism of This Life itself - subverting a soap opera format, introducing realistic twentysomething attitudes to sex, drugs and work to mainstream TV - raises the question of what the show's wilful breaking of TV's previously iron-clad hierarchies has led to. What happened to these young men and women on This Life's set, working in ignorance of what TV had been, under the gun of a strict shooting schedule, a pressured freedom the BBC had not risked before? If this is a generation of talent, how did This Life define it?

"We would let the actors wander around in a slightly anarchic way," Fallon remembers. "We didn't make them worry about blocking out their moves. We did worry we'd spoiled them for future productions. But actually, I think it let them think more deeply about their characters. We also made a virtue out of the fact that it was very low-budget. Certainly with me, and I think probably with some of the directors and writers, it means you approach things differently because you question everything. We didn't come at things from a traditional route. The executive producer, Tony Garnett, put me in a position where I could do what I wanted, which is very rare in TV. I've been left alone since, because I've done This Life. It's a good thing to have on your CV."

It sounds as if she was shown an ideal of what TV could be. Does she think that those who worked on the show, at such a formative stage of their careers, were taught similar idealism, an unwillingness to compromise ? "I think both those things are definitely true." So they'll have higher expectations, purer visions? "Higher expectations, I think, definitely. The opportunity to have visions is something else. TV's getting more and more restrictive." So was the freedom they all seized on This Life an aberration? "I look at it now and I can't imagine how it was ever able to happen, actually."

This Life's actors are less romantic. "I don't think it changed me," says Jason Hughes. "I've always had high expectations. Perhaps it worked the other way around, perhaps they picked me because I don't like to compromise. I don't like to do what I don't think is right." "It was a great opportunity for me," adds Natasha Little. "I hadn't had much television experience before, and it made Vanity Fair less intimidating. It did open a lot of doors for me, and I'll always be grateful. But I don't think it changed me." Hughes doesn't feel part of a generation, either. "I don't look at it in those terms. I think we were just actors looking for a job."

But that's not the whole story. The intricate cross-threads of the careers that the series spun out are less tight round Hughes than some - just a single TV film for the show's original director, Sam Miller. But he hasn't left This Life behind, either. "It was an intense experience," he admits. "We went through it all together, and yeah, I stay in touch. We speak on the phone, go out, be silly. Absolutely." "We were very, very close," Fallon agrees. "A lot of us have stayed in touch, and a lot of us have worked together since. The same crew did both series of This Life, an awful lot of them did Undercover Heart, and they're doing my next thing, too."

It suggests a sort of in-breeding at the heart of this after-Life, a nepotism behind the success. But the truth may be simpler. What made This Life stand out most was that, in the midst of its soap-like speed, an unprecedented number of young creative people found their voices. For the actors, their characters were too odd, too slippery to trap them in typecasting. Instead, they've stretched out in directions appropriate to their age - from Nardini's gallery of strong women, to Hughes, now engrossed in TV and films in his resurgent, native Wales. Andrew Lincoln's Human Traffic cameo can be seen as a nod to their achievement. In a film with its own batch of young unknowns, he looks like part of an older, established generation: Egg, bestowing blessings on his successors.

As for Fallon, the This Life memories linger. In some part of her mind, is she still looking to find something that good again? "God yeah," she says with longing. "Always, always." But is it a grail she may never reach? "It's really, really difficult. I mean ... yes. I really hope not. But things like that don't come along very often."

'Human Traffic' opens on Friday