The Weekend's Television: Hope Springs, Sun, BBC1
Arena: T S Eliot, Sat, BBC2
Scotch on the rocks
Monday 08 June 2009
"Oh, don't call it that," I thought, when I first saw the publicity for Hope Springs, the BBC's latest Sunday evening series.
Hope Springs might be the obvious title for a drama set in a small village of the same name, a drama which, I'm guessing, will demonstrate that, even if £3m of your money goes up in smoke marooning you and your friends in a Scottish backwater, life will eventually compensate you with less material rewards. But it's also a hostage to fortune and, it turns out, a really bad title for a drama as clunky as this. Hope is very poorly, you think, as it begins to dawn on you how far-fetched and laborious the set-up is. And by the time the final credits roll, the undertaker is erecting the headstone on hope's grave.
It might be argued that my hopes were unreasonably high anyway. Ann McManus, Maureen Chadwick and Liz Lake's drama comes from Shed Productions, the company that produced Bad Girls and Footballers' Wives. So, obviously, this account of four female ex-cons, accidentally diverted from a prosperous retirement in Barbados, was never intended to be another Brideshead Revisited. It's there as an end-of-the-weekend wind-down, the only problem being that it's never quite tongue-in-cheek or over-the-top enough to make you forgive its shortcomings.
Even its virtues – such as the reassuringly unprettified surroundings they find themselves in, all electricity pylons and radar domes rather than postcard Scottish glens – only makes things worse. You've got the setting for something that might be mordantly funny (like the first series of Shameless, say), but the plot and psychological depth of a children's comic.
The essential plot is this. Having scammed £3m out of her crooked boyfriend, Ellie plans to leg it to the sun with three friends. Unfortunately, the woman delivering their passports expired on the luggage carousel, leaving them with no option but to hop a train to Fort William and find somewhere to lay low, while Ellie's vengeful boyfriend searches for them. Then, for a reason that I still haven't worked out, Ellie decided to buy the local hotel, somehow convinced that this will make a better cover story when they apply for new passports. She didn't seem to have noted that paying for a hotel with a stack of crisp new £50 notes might arouse suspicion, even in the sleepiest Scottish village.
But then that hardly matters since nothing else makes sense here, not even the acting, which, with the exception of a nicely deadpan sheep, was coarse enough to grate carrots on. "What the hell have we got ourselves into?" wailed Ellie – after an arson attack by the local thug incinerates all their loot – and it's hard not to read the line as a cry of pain from Alex Kingston the actress, rather than the character she's playing.
Arena's film about T S Eliot had some modest scoops to show off: its access to Eliot's personal scrapbooks – stuffed with menu cards and press clippings and souvenirs of his marriage to Valerie – and a previously unpublished poem, a bit of comic verse about cows that he'd written for his god-daughter's family newspaper and which, a rather nice detail, had been declined by that journal's 10-year-old editor because he already had too much material.
The poem won't have done anything to alter anyone's view of Eliot but I think the scrapbooks might have done, eating away at the popular caricature of the stiff, banker poet, his dress as formally old fashioned as that wonderful accent. This was partly to do with snapshots of Eliot in shorts, holding the hand of children, and Eliot sunbathing in a deckchair, stripped to the waist. But it was also the touching banality of a newspaper multiple-choice quiz headlined, "Are You Too Good for Your Wife?". For "How would you rate your wife's intelligence?" Eliot had ticked "Above Average". And for "What do you find least satisfactory about your wife?" he'd indignantly crossed out all three available options.
Freighted with such glimpses of late happiness the conclusion – Eliot's own reading of the final lines of "East Coker" – was wonderfully moving. Lines that are easy to mistake as dryly cerebral suddenly flushed with feeling.
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