Last Night's TV - Bouquet of Barbed Wire, ITV1; Grandma's House, BBC2

Family affairs are still hard to resist

Reviewed,Brian Viner
Tuesday 07 September 2010 00:00

Eight years ago, I interviewed the actress Susan Penhaligon, ostensibly about a new play she was in, although of course the reason I was so familiar with her name, and what I really wanted to talk to her about, was the steamy 1976 adaptation of Andrea Newman's novel A Bouquet of Barbed Wire, in which she played Prue Sorenson. I told her that it had sent my 14-year-old hormones haywire. She told me, bitterly, that it had done something similar to her emotional equilibrium, the avalanche of public interest having landed squarely on her 26-year-old head.

"Actually, I was one of the most moral characters," she told me, still indignant after all those years. "And yet a lot of the more salacious reaction seemed to land on me. I was completely at sea with it. I just didn't understand how to deal with the intrusion into my private life. These days there would be more support."

That's probably true, but more to the point, these days the reaction would be, and indeed is, a lot more ho-hum. There was nothing in last night's opening episode of ITV's remake to make Imogen Poots, the new Prue, want to run for the hills with a posse of Mary Whitehouses yapping at her heels. After all, an hour of telly in which a girl gets impregnated by her English teacher, whom she then marries to the fury of her creepily possessive father, who consoles himself by bonking a young colleague in his daughter's bed even as she, the daughter, is being beaten up by her new husband in their honeymoon cottage, could quite easily be any old omnibus edition of EastEnders. Times have changed, and we've changed with them. It's early days in Bouquet of Barbed Wire mark 2, and I imagine there's plenty of sex, sado-masochism and incestuous yearnings yet to come, but it won't have the nation earnestly discussing it in banks and at bus stops, in school corridors and supermarket aisles, like it did in 1976, not even with this Prue being a mere sixth-former (the Penhaligon version was at university).

In a way this is a shame, because on last night's evidence, it's very good. Newman herself has lamented the way in which it has been compressed into three hour-long episodes, having originally run over seven. She cites our waning attention spans, and she may be right. But Guy Andrews has written excellent, and admirably sparse dialogue; Ashley Pearce's direction is clever without being overly tricksy; even the background music, which besmirches so much television drama these days by forgetting its place and crashing the foreground, is just about right. And most conspicuously of all, the casting is spot-on and the acting utterly splendid.

Poots is terrific, and has to be, because Trevor Eve can cast a mighty shadow, and I'm not just talking about his prodigious schnozzle. Eve plays Prue's father, the old Frank Finlay part of affluent, middle-class Peter Manson (was it a deliberate joke of Newman's, I wonder, to call this dysfunctional bunch the Manson family?), and it is a finely nuanced performance, sympathetic even, but then I write as the father of a daughter of the same sort of age as Prue, not that we have the same sort of relationship, thank goodness.

Honourable mentions should also go to Tom Riley, bright and handsome enough as Gavin to make it plausible that Prue should have fallen for him, moody and chippy enough to see how he might be the worst possible catch. And then as Prue's mother, Cassie, there's Hermione Norris, an actress I'd happily watch reading out the phone directory, but maybe that's just me. I don't know whether Cassie was a marriage-guidance counsellor in the 1976 version, or indeed in the novel, but she is here, which could have been just too clunkily ironic, though Norris pulls it off.

What her character declines to pull off – so far, anyway – are the boxer shorts of Peter's rich and slimey client, Giles (the ever-reliable Nicholas Farrell), who tries to bribe her into bed by offering to ease Peter through some financial difficulties. It is Giles who highlights the other dimension in this adaptation of the book: class. In the 1976 version, Gavin was an American. Here, he is a working-class Yorkshireman, quite content living in a Hackney tower block. "What do you mean he's not particularly concerned about his credit rating," Giles spluttered to Peter. "What kind of a man is he?"

I laughed at that, not that humour otherwise abounds in Bouquet of Barbed Wire. But complicated family relationships can be played for laughs, which brings me to Grandma's House, now approaching the end of a series that has provoked catcalls and bouquets in roughly equal measure. I'm with the bouquet-throwers, and while I'm aware that you'd have to sit through quite a lot of amateur dramatics before encountering an actor quite as wooden as Simon Amstell, I think he gets away with it, which may indeed be part of the conceit.

The rest of the conceit is that Amstell more or less plays himself, a gay, Jewish comedian called Simon who used to host a TV panel show (Never Mind the Buzzcocks in Amstell's case), and whose mother and grandmother (Rebecca Front and Linda Bassett) are desperate for him to get back on the telly being rude. Last night, they were horrified that he could find nothing funny to say about Peaches Geldof or even Peter Andre, and I was with them all the way; no comedian should ever fall so low.

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