When they gaze back on this period in years to come, the historians will all agree: we are living through the Golden Era of the guy who plays the sensitive piano for BBC dramas. For the past fortnight, sensitive piano guy, in concert with his good friends, the weeping and dramatic violin sisters, has been giving it sad pelters all over The Outcast, a drama you most likely have already forgotten, except for the fact it contained one hell of a lot of sensitive piano.
Piano, you might have thought, just doesn’t get more sensitive than this. But you’d be wrong. He outdoes himself with the first episode of Life In Squares, which, for many of us, will be the only episode we will ever see. If there is a single space left into which he could have crammed another lachrymose arpeggio, I can’t spot it. The only way a piano could get more intrusively sensitive would be for it to actually come round your house and sit in the corner of the living room blushing and refusing to let you see the poetry it has written.
If this is a boom period for sensitive piano, however, it is a mean season for all who reckoned that, after that Nicole Kidman film with the nose – Hours And Hours, I believe it was called – one incredibly dull and self-congratulatory drama involving Virginia Woolf was all our cultural elite would inflict upon us.
Written by Amanda Coe, Life In Squares, a notionally biographical piece on Woolf, her painter sister Vanessa Bell and their brilliant, beautiful, boho buddies, is a particularly dreary example of a drama whose sole ambition is to flatter its audience for being smart enough to watch it. If, heaven forfend, you don’t know who or what the Bloomsbury Group were, the chances of learning from this, or of wanting to learn after watching it, are low.
A good example is – spoiler– the handling of the death of Virginia and Vanessa’s brother, Thoby Stephen, midway through the opener. As the sisters are thrown into a traumatic vortex of despair, the cry comes, “What are we going to do?” But for the viewer, the answer seems obvious: carry on as you were, because all Thoby did was sit in the corner of a few scenes drinking tea and looking vaguely pleased with himself.
Beyond a thankless turn from Eleanor Bron as Old Mrs Tut-Tut The Disapproving Aunt, the social context against which the Bloomsburys set their aesthetic and moral revolt (whatever it was) goes unsketched. The absence of the outside world is perhaps intended to intensify the clique’s ivory-tower mindset and claustrophobically incestuous nature, but it renders them incomprehensible. The effect is like watching dramatic reconstructions from a documentary, without any documentary.
Most damagingly, for a piece about people whose work tested modernism and consciousness, it shows zero interest in any of that itself. Everything sits on the surface. Amid witty dialogue like “May I trouble you for another one of those remarkable buns,” the funniest line comes when Vanessa tells Virginia, “There’s no need to say absolutely everything out loud.” It’s supposed to be a knowing comment on Woolf, but it seems more a demonstration that Coe is unaware that this is precisely what every single character in her script does all the time. Thankfully, there is respite. Often, the sensitive piano gets so overpowering you can’t hear what any of them are saying. Take your mercies where you can.
The Sunday Herald, July 26 2015