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TV review: Us, and Britain’s Biggest Dig

25 September 2020

BBC/Drama Republic/Colin Hutton

Connie (Saskia Reeves), Douglas (Tom Hollander), and Albie (Tom Taylor) in Us (BBC1, Sundays)

Connie (Saskia Reeves), Douglas (Tom Hollander), and Albie (Tom Taylor) in Us (BBC1, Sundays)

MARRIAGES up and down the land will have been pushed closer to the brink by the screening of the first episode of BBC1’s latest Sunday-night drama, David Nicholls’s Us.

Connie announces to Douglas, her husband of 20-odd years, that she is going to leave him. Eventually, they agree that, despite this impending rupture, they will (as a kind of farewell performance on her part: on his, a desperate attempt to make her change her mind) proceed with the Grand Tour across Europe that they had planned as a final family holiday before their only son, Albie, goes off to university.

In every instance, Douglas is so clearly in the right: of course, you plan carefully all the main sights that must be seen; of course, you write down a list of key things to do; of course, however much you dislike chocolate, you eat the hotel’s complimentary bonbon because you have, in reality, paid for it; of course, you object when the freewheeling young woman your son brought back to the hotel for a night of passion pockets half the buffet breakfast in the morning; of course, he feels excluded by the relaxed intimacy shared by mother and son.

And yet the whole production is set up to make us think that she is in the right and he is wrong. I fear that, in sitting-room after sitting-room, the chill would have descended as, silently, husband and wife ticked off all the ways in which they identified with the couple: either, why can’t he just relax and live in the moment? or, why can’t she accept a few objective facts, a few ethical norms?

Starring Saskia Reeves and Tom Hollander, this is absolutely brilliant TV: a bittersweet comedy built solidly on the eternal disjunction between how most men and most women see the world. Some moments — Douglas’s existential distress expressed in his frenzied struggle to flatten cardboard boxes as required by the household-waste facility — are as funny and as sad as anything we’ll see this year.

The clergy and churchwardens among us, whose duties include ensuring the proper burial of the dead, will have watched with professional interest the first episode of Britain’s Biggest Dig (BBC2, Tuesday of last week). The whole route of the HS2 must be archaeologically investigated; its London terminus required the clearing of the former burial ground of St James’s, Piccadilly, and the reburial of its human remains.

By the 18th century, city-centre churchyards were completely full; so wealthy parishes, such as St James’s, set up, in effect, overflow sites in what was then open pasture. This one was designed in 1789 for 16,000 burials. By the time of its closure, in 1853, some 60,000 had been crammed in.

We saw how the burials demonstrated London’s social and commercial make-up, and its medical morphology; but no one questioned why densely crowded parishes refused to subdivide into smaller church units, enabling proper pastoral care. Burial fees, that’s why!

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