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TV review: EastEnders, Afterglow, and Maryland

02 June 2023

BBC/Jack Barnes/Kieron McCarron

Lola Pearce (Danielle Harold) decides to be baptised, in EastEnders (BBC1, Mondays-Thursdays)

Lola Pearce (Danielle Harold) decides to be baptised, in EastEnders (BBC1, Mondays-Thursdays)

BEST prepare for a spate of deathbed baptisms. Lola’s struggle with cancer, now approaching its sad climax, dominates EastEnders (BBC1, Mondays-Thursdays). Urged on by her daughter, devastated that they “won’t be together for ever”, in the episode on Wednesday of last week she decides to be baptised. Cue the widest range of responses from her nearest and dearest, from loving support to downright angry opposition, as she calls in the Vicar.

It was a shame that the script had no space for “Reverend Mills” to offer a theodicy that would challenge the characters’ incoherent questioning of how God could exist if such tragedies occurred. And, once the sacrament had been administered, the camera milked the pathos, pulling away from above, Lola bathed in a halo of white light: an apotheosis that was frankly Victorian in its sentimentality.

But the baptism itself was portrayed beautifully, sensitively, and respectfully; the Vicar offered an extempore prayer that combined real theological and pastoral depth, superior to the usual effusions of scriptwriters. People in the real world might well be moved to contact their parish priest, inspired to explore whether there might, after all, be something in “it”.

Ester Sand, the central character of BBC4’s new Norwegian drama Afterglow (Fridays from Saturday 20 May), responds to her shock diagnosis of cervical cancer — revealed to her on her 40th birthday — quite differently. This glorious creation is a force of nature: a loving nurse, wife, and mother, who brings joy and light to all around her. She won’t let the news spoil the splendid party that she has arranged, and persuades her husband to keep it secret from everyone — until, in a splendid coup de TV, a carelessly placed baby monitor relays their conversation to everyone. How she cajoles everyone to overcome their shock and distress and join in the dancing is just one of the many transformations that she effects, a kind of secular one-woman benediction to all whom she encounters.

Transformations lay also at the heart of ITV’s Maryland (Monday-Wednesday of last week). The sisters Becca and Rosaline receive shocking news: the entirely unexpected death of their mother. But, as they explore what has happened, they are confounded by revelation after revelation. Hidden away on the Isle of Man, their mother had a life that was completely unknown to the sisters and to their father.

Here, unlike the ordinary and, frankly, dull woman whom they thought they knew, she was gregarious, cultured, fun — and she had a lover. Each shock brings anger, resentment, and blazing rows, and uncovers ancient resentments and jealousies. Finding out that their mother was so different forces them to examine and confront their own identities and lives. But facing the painful truth proves (perhaps rather too easily) cathartic and creates new levels of hope and love.

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