Sex: in This Life it's all that matters

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Indy Lifestyle Online
The Week started with something for the kids. True Tilda (BBC1, Sunday) was an adaptation of an Edwardian classic (albeit a rather obscure classic) involving a circus girl and her battle against evil. Tilda herself, well played by Morgan Bell (a graduate of the "lor luv a duck" Jack Wilde school of streetwise-cockney-waif acting), finds herself stranded in a town where all the women scrub their front-steps and all the children play with hoops. Her mission is to find a small boy and help him (though why and what from is not at all clear, so wait till the next episode, dear).

Fortunately everyone is good, except the baddie - who runs a Dotheboys Hall- type orphanage. He may be powerful, but if the decent forces combine, they (and their inevitable cute pets) will prevail. Victory is certain.

This is, of course, a view of life that doesn't survive the early teens. Increasingly the balance between good and evil seems more equal - if you can discern the difference at all through the hormonal fug. And hardly are you out of them, than it's time for programmes like This Life (BBC2, Tuesday), which do not clarify things. Far from it.

This over-criticised series returned with the aftermath of one of those parties where everyone gets legless and then has sex; the sort of party that, when I was younger, everyone talked about, but that never seemed actually to happen (as opposed to parties where everyone got legless and no one had sex; those happened a lot).

Being an aftermath, little actually took place in this episode. It acted more as scene-setter for the rest of the series, but as such took some getting used to - as my notes (taken at the time m'lud) indicate. "A was in bed with B and they were apprehensive (not least because she had been having a thing with Y's Dad, who was now sleeping in the bath). X was in bed with Y and that was clearly Destined To Be. C was on the couch, D was behind it. X took cup of tea for C. C went to sit on the loo and met Y's Dad."

This was complex, but enjoyable, especially since it involved nudity: one pair of breasts (female) and two bottoms (one male, one female).

Two aspects, however, marked this as being very modern soap. The first was the unusual frankness about things lavatorial. Characters here say "I'm just going for a slash", and then just go for one; one chap (Y, I think), caught short, pees noisily into a beer can (yes, someone does take a swig. D, as it happens).

And there is much talk about shagging. Or, to be exact, good and bad shagging. As in "Anna's a good shag", or "You were the worst shag of my life". But we (who see the vein of morality that the characters themselves must miss) know that the only good shag is a loving shag. Sure enough - at the end - we hear X and Y having a good, loving shag.

But the grey hairs come and shagging turns to something that involves the brain more than the thighs or the genitals. We are now in the world of affairs, of comfortable uxorious sex, or of no sex. This is the domain examined by Have Your Cake and Eat It (BBC1, Saturday/Sunday), a tale of middle-aged, bourgeois angst, just as enjoyable as A Bouquet of Barbed Wire or A Sense of Guilt, if less overwrought.

That we are in Angst-land (Schadenfreude province) is immediately made clear by the location. The beautiful blonde family that is so shortly to be divided by betrayal and breakdown inhabits what I call "The BBC House". This large Edwardian terrace (Richmond, many original features, 2 car OSP, 5 bedroom, large breakfast/diner/kitchen, traumatised owners must sell) seems to feature whenever a tale of middle-class distress is in the offing. Last seen in the nanny-saga, Tears at Bedtime, it offers family happiness in the sunny garden, crockery throwing in the kitchen, regretful kid-kissing in the bunk bedroom and steamy reconciliation in the en suite master. Oh, and suitcases in the hall. It also provides diversion when the action flags, as middle-aged viewers check out the floor-tiling and the furniture.

The story concerns craggy, sensitive Sam - a rollercoaster designer - and how he busts up his 20-year-old marriage to beautiful Sinead Cusack for the sake of a voluptuous younger colleague. His early progress towards disaster is paralleled by a rollercoaster ride. As the adulterers move inex- orably towards rumpy-pumpy, the car is slowly drawn up to the highest point. Then - as Sam and his young inamorata give it everything they've got - it drops and hurtles down and round corners. There, of course, the visual metaphor ends (although a coarser director might have insisted on a final water-splash).

Inevitably, the affair - initially a one- off - becomes a grande passion (though we have remarkably little sense of why it does). So, as it progresses there are scenes at home, tears at work, sullen children, mass confessions at Christmas, gratuitous advice from all quarters, and the inevi- table pregnancy.

I loved every moment of it. (Well almost. The dream sequence when he believes that his wife has crept in to the bedroom carrying a shovel, and is about to bring it down with a nut-cracking thwack on the physical source of their difficulties, was very silly.) My partner and I argued with him not to be so stupid, urged his wife to be forgiving, begged the other woman to consider the children, told his gay partner to buy a shot- gun and put him out of his misery. And I also had no problem with it being - in the end - a deeply moral tale. No man, watching the wrinkled, pathetic Sam pine for his young lover, could possibly have felt that this was a dignified situation for a successful professional to end up in. The lesson was clear. If you must have a lover, take one of your own age.

But what I really could not fathom about Sam was who in his right mind would want to jeopardise a pleasant existence in that fabulous house? Most of us would rather lose our balls.

Which is why Family Money (C4, Sunday) strikes such a chord. This is about post-adulterous middle age, when you start to worry about whether you will ever be able to pay for the kids in college, your own pension, and to live in the wonderful house you've always dreamed of. If widowed Mummy inhabits a great canal-side pile in the most fashionable part of Islington, then it seems reasonable to expect to get your hands on it eventually. Well, it does to a fictional BBC producer, in whom good flickers fitfully and bad (in the guise of reason) is easily provoked.

So when elderly Fran (a very young looking Claire Bloom) decides to sell up and give a hundred grand to her cleaner (whose name, naturally is Ivy, and who is played - not so naturally - by June Whitfield) a distressing discussion ensues involving her children and their spouses. What is good about Family Money is that the most convincing lines are given to the most selfish characters. "If Ivy dies," warns one, "it'll all go to her horrible husband or daughter, when it should go to Fran's grandchildren". Can we not, most of us, imagine ourselves speaking those lines?

After the praise, a critical digression. This drama - like Have Your Cake and Eat It - seems to feel that realism is not enough. And just as the one has roller coasters and dreams, so Family Money has a sinister, omnipresent bonking bargee and a tendency for curtains to flap eerily in non-existent breezes. So here's a a message to the directors: cut it out.

Still, these two programmes successfully summed up the anguish of early and mid-middle-age. But when, with the passage of time, these anxieties leave us (along with our hormones and our children) there will always be Poirot (ITV, Sunday) - in which no one goes for a slash (well, not that kind anyway), there are no breasts, no bottoms, no shagging, no mid- life crisis, no failing businesses, no For Sale boards. Only good acting, undemanding plots ("I missed that dear - nodded off - was it the niece?"), and lovely locations: a drama for those finished with the minor irritations of life, and now ready to put up their weary feet.