Scarcely have we emerged from the warm bubble bath that was Downton Abbey than along comes a piercingly cold shower in the form of Accused, six separate dramas written by Jimmy McGovern, who might just be what you'd get if you fed a profile of Downton Abbey's creator Julian Fellowes into a computer and programmed it to identify an exact opposite.
Happily, television has room for both these skilled story-tellers, but I make the comparison because of something McGovern himself reportedly said recently – that drama on TV should reflect modern reality. "Why write drama that doesn't matter?" he said, by which he meant drama that has no relevance to the way most of us live. It's a valid point of view, but it overlooks the unyielding appetite of the British for gentle escapism. Moreover, I'm not ashamed to admit that Downton Abbey has indirectly provided my wife, Jane, and me with a one-liner that we now use regularly to respond to almost any unfortunate situation. When Jane met her friend Ali on the morning after a lusty Turk had expired in Lady Mary's bed, Ali greeted her with the heartfelt lament, "poor Mr Pamuk". And so it is that "poor Mr Pamuk" has entered our household lexicon, though I'm not sure that satisfies the McGovern definition of a drama in contact with everyday life.
Whatever, I know what he was getting at, and certainly I felt like applauding last night's episode of Accused on and off the screen, for here was an hour of primetime drama on BBC1 not about a detective, or a doctor, barrister, architect or spy, but a plumber, living not in a chic urban penthouse or a wisteria-clad pile, but in an ordinary house in an unremarkable Northern town. McGovern understands what commissioning editors increasingly seem to forget – that ordinary working people have complicated lives, rich in dramatic potential, no less than, indeed possibly more than, the puy lentil-eating bourgeoisie. With his enthralling series The Street, and now this, McGovern is a one-man counterblast to the ridiculous and yet firmly entrenched notion that their stories should be confined to the soaps.
Anyway, Accused presents the tale of a defendant in a trial, gradually explaining through flashbacks how he or she got there, rather than dwelling on the court case. First up was hot-headed, chippy Willy Houlihan, played by that specialist in Northern chippiness, Christopher Eccleston. Not long ago Eccleston played a notably chippy John Lennon, and may even be just a little bit chippy himself, not that I've ever met him. I have met McGovern, though. I interviewed him once for a documentary about The Royle Family, of which he was a tremendous fan, and I remember him citing as his favourite bit of dialogue an exchange between Ricky Tomlinson as Jim Royle and I think Ralf Little playing young Antony. They were washing up the Sunday dinner dishes, at least until it came to the encrusted roasting pan. "Leave that for your mother," said Jim, which made McGovern roar, for it conveyed a ubiquitous truth with simple economy of language, which is his own stock-in-trade.
Really, Accused is his gig, not the actors', excellent though they all were last night, from Eccleston down. The story began with Willy planning to leave his wife for a younger woman, who suggested telling their respective spouses at a pre-appointed hour, 6.30pm, just as the woman reading the news said "and now it's time to join the BBC news teams where you are." I love that marriage of the momentous and the mundane, but in fact Willy bottled out, because his daughter chose that very second to walk in and announce her intention to get married.
She was marrying into money, but Willy was determined to pay for the wedding. Then a builder who owed him more than £20,000 went bust on him, so he hot-headedly smashed up all the bathrooms he'd installed, which didn't stop his own life spiralling down the plughole. Cleverly, McGovern kept us guessing what crime had landed Willy in the dock, and it turned out to be passing counterfeit money, which he hadn't done deliberately, but clearly, if I might be permitted one more plumbing metaphor, here was a man destined to drown in the septic tank of life. There was redemption in his reawakened love for his wife, and rejection of his mistress, but not even that ended happily, and McGovern's overriding triumph was to elicit such sympathy for a decidedly unsympathetic fellow. In that recent interview, McGovern also asserted that class "informs everything ... there are still lots of situations in which I am ill at ease because I am working-class". Which may well be, but as a writer he's a very classy piece of work indeed.
So, in their different ways, are Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. The Trip, their culinary odyssey round Northern England, is a strange delight, like snipe on toast. Last night they reached Holbeck Ghyll in the Lake District, with their respective characters (Brydon relentlessly cheerful; Coogan insecure and melancholic) now firmly established, though how much of it's an act we're not quite sure, which is where the appeal of The Trip lies. There, and in the endless stream of very funny impressions, including, in this edition, Brydon's celebrated ventriloquism act, "Small Man Trapped in a Box".
Finally, from a very small man to a very large woman, it's a joy to have Miranda back, offering a reminder, in this polemical age, that comedy can still be visual as well as verbal.Reuse content