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TV review: Unprecedented

05 June 2020

BBC4

NO DOUBT you have never, stuck deep in a PCC or synod meeting, con­­­sidered how good it would be were the person chairing it able, pain­lessly, to remove this or that particularly unhelpful speaker. One unexpected result of the lockdown is that, thanks to Zoom, he or she can indeed do precisely that.

It was the ruling schtick of Going Forward, one of BBC4’s Unprece­dented: a series of brief dramas screened each night from Tuesday to Friday last week, newly written and performed in response to lockdown and filmed in strict accordance with all the distancing strictures.

The convener, Siobhan, was the perfect chairperson: humourless, ut­­terly non-empathetic, and impatient with any­one else’s contribution. As her colleagues failed to fulfil her ex­­pectations, she told them, first, that their line was breaking up, and then — Snap! — switched them off.

Their failure was that, one by one, they refused to promise to supply the company’s goods and services by the required deadline: the lack of raw materials and supply chain made it impossible. But this was not good enough: she needed them to lie, to make undertakings that they, and she, knew could not be met. So it was a political satire for our times — and possibly worth remembering whenever we reach the next round of diocesan-common-fund pledges.

Split screens showed us the char­ac­ters, in isolation, in marvel­lous, largely solo perfor­mances achieved without the direct personal inter­action usually essential to create drama, tension, and ro­­mance.

The writers found the widest range of ways to respond to the brief: the 20 tiny plays were sometimes farcical, sometimes tragic, and fre­quently a mixture of both. One — The Night After — was positively anarchic, surreal. In Central Hill, we were made to feel more than usually helpless as a comic undermining of the preten­sions of the actors and dir­­ector suddenly darkened into tra­gedy, an appalling assault capsiz­ing the carefully constructed face. Or, in Safer at Home, the dawning real­isa­tion that the attentive hus­band’s care for his pregnant wife is con­­trolling, overwhelming, and worse: why does she no longer come to the phone?

An added piquancy was that, when­ever we saw two people in the same shot — usually husband and wife acting out an un­­­­ravelling rela­tion­ship — the lock­down rules meant that they were, in real life, partners. How challenging were those rehearsals? The brilliant writ­ing and performance conjured up, in moments, a whole world, a reality that we accept, live with, and believe in — all beneath the im­­­pending doom signalled by a cough or a per­sistent temperature.

The most searing was Fear Fatigue: the actors were medical pro­­­fessionals speaking directly, de­­scribing the disease and its progress, trying but failing to hide how their care for us as we die brings them into mortal danger.

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