Isolation Stories review, episode one: Sheridan Smith shines in first TV drama made under lockdown

The actors were directed over Zoom for the ambitious four-part ITV series – and judging by the inaugural episode, the results are laudable

Studio flat... Sheridan Smith as Mel in episode one of 'Isolation Stories'
Studio flat... Sheridan Smith as Mel in episode one of 'Isolation Stories'

For pure gumption alone, Isolation Stories (ITV1) – the first TV drama to be made during the coronavirus lockdown – deserves to be applauded. Its stars had a heavy haul of disinfected camera equipment dropped off at their front doors, with which they filmed their own performances, from their own homes, guided by directors over Zoom. It’s a logistical nightmare dreamt up by writer and producer Jeff Pope – and judging by tonight’s inaugural episode, it’s paid off.

Sheridan Smith, who takes the lead in episode one, has the kind of emotive, persuasive face that’s well-suited to unvarnished close-ups. Filmed by her insurance broker fiancé (Jamie Horn) and acting as her own make-up artist and costume designer, she plays Mel, who is “living on my own, in a city I just moved to, in 24-hour lockdown, with a baby due in three weeks”. There’s not much to hide when you’re filming in circumstances like these, so episode writer Gaby Chiappe made the most of Smith’s real-life baby bump.

We first meet Mel making fun of her colleagues while muted on a Zoom call. One of them is struggling with lockdown, so the HR representative hosting the meeting (Daniel Lawrence Taylor) gets out his guitar and serenades her. “No don’t sing, she’s suffered enough,” says Mel, still muted, gobbling custard creams. It’s an enjoyably facetious start. Things get bleaker from there.

Mel is isolating alone – the father of her baby is a little busy with his own wife and children. Everyone but her seems to be surrounded by people. Her dad’s locked down with his partner Alison, plus “Shelley, Mark and Daniel, obviously, Daniel’s Dale, Shelley’s Rob, three little ones…” With each name her dad reels off, Mel seems smaller and more alone in her big empty house (it’s perhaps a little too big, to be honest, but Smith was working with what she had).

Alison tells Mel to think “beautiful thoughts”, because the unborn are “like spiritual sponges, sucking it all up”. So she tries to expunge all of her bitterness by filming video messages – to her ex, her ex’s child, her dad, her unborn baby, an old classmate who once put a “curse” on her. Most of them she deletes; one she sends. It turns out to be her saving grace.

There’s something about being inside the actors’ actual homes that makes Isolation Stories feel touchingly intimate. I have just one quibble. At a time when 90 per cent of our social life involves video calling, there’s a comfort in watching vast, glossy, escapist television. Watching yet more Zoom calls and grainy webcam footage all feels a little too close to home. Literally.

Still, as a well-crafted time capsule of these strange and unprecedented times, Isolation Stories works wonders.

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