Last Night's TV - Royal Wedding, BBC2; Wormwood Scrubs, ITV1

Tainted love in the unhappy valley
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The Independent Culture

There aren't many reasons to mourn the kind of Britain we had in the summer of 1981, an unhappy nation torn apart by inner-city race riots and handbagged by a hectoring Prime Minister. True, it was a summer that ignited collective rejoicing as well as police cars, but the fairytale wedding of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer now looks less like a fairytale than one of Aesop's darker fables.

One authentic reason to miss the cut of Britain's jib in the summer of 1981, however, is the quality of one-off television drama we had back then. Between 1970 and 1984, Play for Today on BBC1 yielded more than 300 original dramas, written by such luminous talents as Alan Bleasdale, Dennis Potter and Jack Rosenthal, and directed by Ken Loach, Stephen Frears and Mike Leigh, among many other creative giants. Even when Play for Today finished, the baton was passed to the Screen One and Screen Two strands. So the dwindling of the BBC's resources for original one-off drama is little short of a cultural disaster, at least when you think of Play for Today, of the careers it enhanced and the audiences it enriched. It is one of the ironies of modern life that television drama unfolds in high-definition on the kind of vast, fabulous flat screens of which we could barely dream in 1981, and yet by comparison with then is woefully under-funded and under-prioritised.

All of which brings me to Royal Wedding, a one-off original drama that somehow made it along the juddering modern BBC production line to our vast, fabulous screens. It was written by Abi Morgan, the playwright whose most garlanded piece of television work was Sex Traffic, the extraordinarily powerful Channel 4 drama about Eastern European women sold into prostitution. And I suppose I should temper my rhapsodies about telly drama in the good old days of Play for Today by noting that the long list of fantastic writers and directors to whom the BBC gave work was conspicuously short of women. We might have had a woman running the country but there were scarcely any women writing for television. Yet even in these much reduced times for TV drama, just about every other set of credits seems to feature a female writer or director, or both.

Royal Wedding was set in a village in the Welsh Valleys on the day Charles and Di embarked on their ill-starred marriage, and starred Jodie Whittaker as Linda Caddock, a factory worker married to Johnny (Darren Boyd), a feckless musician, and having an affair with her boss, Alan (Alun Raglan). Some of the previewers reckoned that the Valleys accents were a little dodgy, but they seemed spot-on to me. Besides, one of my children wandered in halfway through wondering if we were watching Gavin & Stacey, which seems testament enough.

Whatever, I don't come from Wales so I shouldn't comment on the vowels, but I do come from 1981 – my last year of teenage – so I can say with authority that the period detail was irreproachable. "It looks like another world," remarked my wife, and indeed it did, a world we could hardly believe we ever inhabited unironically. Still, at least she never went into a hairdresser's and asked for a "Lady Diana" – it was her shaggy-perm era – but tens of thousands of women did, and Royal Wedding sent them all up with a Lady Di-lookalike contest, entered by Alan's charmless wife, Sherry (Sarah Hadland), in full wedding dress.

For all the sparks of comedy, though, Royal Wedding was overwhelmingly downbeat, a tale of hope suffocated by hopelessness. This applied on many levels, from Thatcher's free-market economics closing the factory to Johnny's failure as a musician and even as a suicide, but most notably it ran like a seam of Welsh coal through the story of Linda, who yearned to escape her gloomy life and loser of a husband but gradually realised that Alan wasn't the man to lead her to the promised land. She asked whether they could head for America or perhaps India when they ran away together that night; he suggested Shropshire. And in the end, you knew that she would be forced to divert her aspirations for herself towards her teenage daughter Tammy (Gwyneth Keyworth), like so many other mothers trapped by their circumstances.

Into all this was woven the coverage of Charles and Diana's big day, which loomed large and obvious – at times a little too large and too obvious – as a metaphor for the death of idealism; not that anyone predicted it then, except for Linda's non-conformist friend Bev (Rebekah Staton), who wore a "Don't Do It Di" T-shirt. The thing started with Diana telling a TV interviewer that Charles was "pretty amazing"; it ended with some footage of her sitting by his side looking unutterably unhappy. Morgan's underlying message seemed to be that men are unreliable bastards, and as I recall, the male of the species didn't emerge too well from Sex Traffic, either.

Nor did they from Wormwood Scrubs, which concluded with a second part as powerful and depressing as the first. One prisoner, a convicted burglar called Neil McCarthy, noted ruefully that over the past 20 years, 11 months is the longest he has been out of prison. He has watched every series of Big Brother behind bars, he added, and I couldn't decide what part of that comment was most dispiriting: his inability to stay out of jail or the way he used a reality TV show to measure time. That would never have happened in 1981.

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