John Sullivan, the peerless wit and author of modern British culture, who died last month, recognised Jim Broadbent's talent early on.
As he was casting around for a cheeky, versatile, deeply loveable actor who could play the lead role of Del Boy in his Only Fools and Horses..., he alighted on Broadbent's avuncular visage. Sullivan offered him the role, but Broadbent was too busy, so it went to David Jason. The rest, as they say, is mystery.
In fact, Broadbent did make it into Only Fools and Horses... as DCI Roy Slater, a former lover of Del Boy's partner who had been at school with Del Boy and all his mates but earned their hatred when he became a rozzer. His best film performance was in Iris, when he played the frustrated husband of Iris Murdoch, nursing her through her final years with Alzheimer's.
In Exile last night, it was Broadbent who had Alzheimer's, and even in this first episode of three, he did enough to confirm his position alongside Ian McKellen, John Hurt and Michael Gambon as one of the greatest English actors of his generation. He was aided by two outstanding performances, from a bewitching John Simm (playing his son Tom) and the reliably wonderful Olivia Colman (his daughter Nancy).
Tom was a washed-up journalist who'd had enough of London life, where his sniffing of cocaine and hard-drinking had left him beaten by fatigue. I will be very surprised if the BBC receives fewer than 100 complaints about one particular rendezvous between Simm and the old Bolivian marching powder, which struck even this putative legaliser of hallucinogenics as rather too believable.
Having run away from family life, Tom returned to a deteriorating father, who himself had been an eminent hack, and his devoted daughter. In a late-night discussion with an old friend, whose wife Tom knows as a mistress, he revealed an occasion long ago when, rifling through papers in the family study, his father caught him. Daddy Broadbent proceeded to beat his son to a pulp, smashing his face against a desk in one particularly brutal scene. But not before Tom found the beginnings of a family mystery – a bunch of negatives, sealed in an envelope bearing the name of a local bureaucrat.
This was where the son following the father into journalism gave the narrative some bite. Tom used his journalistic wit to dig around the house, and so find out more about the father's secret. In doing so, he came across accounts that might save him and his sister from penury. This, then, was the reporter in search of the story – locked inside his father's brain.
There was a wonderful scene in which Tom came across some of his old mix tapes in the cellar, and played them through a ghetto blaster in the living room, trying to cajole some deep mystery from the depths of his father's calcifying mind.
Though Colman was fabulous as the ever-attendant sister, the show was carried by the masculine intensity of Simm's relationship with Broadbent, which fully deserves to be reprised on stage at some point. The periodic violence helped, of course, but it was the juxtaposition with humiliation that really struck home. Many was the time that son attended the father's visits to the lavatory, if only to guide him to the loo roll by his side; yet in between visits, they would be at each other's throats in deep frustration.
And I reckon that when Danny Brocklehurst, the writer, and Paul Abbott, the creator, reflect on their success later this week over a cup of chai with Danny Cohen, the BBC1 Controller, it will be the zeitgeistness of this show they feel happiest about. It engaged very directly with highly topical issues.
A giant, irreversible demographic shift is taking place in Britain and much of the Western world. We are all going to live much longer. This means that caring for old people, and with it treating attendant deteriorations in mental faculties is going to be a bigger and bigger part of our lives. Broadbent personified this coming change superbly. He was the burden we will have to bear – but will bear with the love and frustrations of all devoted children, who know that their debt to their parents is beyond measure.
Many of the same themes were there in Vera, over on ITV1 and double the length: mystery, personal angst, family trauma. Brenda Blethyn was excellent as DCI Vera Stanhope, she too being a hard-drinker (no evidence of cocaine use, alas) whose scruffy exterior makes her likeable. Her task in investigating grisly but slightly beautiful murders – one mother in Newcastle found her son strangled in a bathroom adorned with petals – had us on her side immediately. And her Columbo-like doggedness, which included a distinct lack of physical fitness while running across the countryside in pursuit of killers, made Blethyn feel instantly like a long-established Sunday night institution.
It was hard, watching all this glorious story-telling, not to feel like we still know how to make drama in Britain. For all the chatter about our inability to create shows like The Wire, Mad Men, and so on, there is original programming aplenty over here, which boasts superb acting and direction. The trouble is, it tends to go to air at the same time on different channels, which I guess is why they invented Sky+, and why I volunteer to write this stuff.