’Conversations with Friends’, more of the same

Conversations With Friends. Yawn.

Like most sequels these days, Conversations with Friends is actually a remake. And on one level, you can hardly blame them. 

After the giddy high that The Tiger King initially produced, arriving as it did in the depths of the pandemic, we gradually realised quite how sordid the whole thing was. The unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable. 

So the arrival soon after of Normal People seemed to provide the world with a much needed palette cleanser. Here was something you could sit back, relax and enjoy in the knowledge that, for the next thirty minutes, your brain would be completely superfluous. 

No bile or vitriol, just polite, keen-to-be-educated and uniformly pretty youths shot against endlessly pleasing backgrounds, as they mumbled sweet nothings about nothing in particular for six glorious hours. 

The only way you could conceivably end up on the edge of your seat would be if you’d sunk so far back into it, you’d inadvertently slipped off entirely to land languidly in a pool on the floor. For many, it was just what the doctor ordered.

Normal People. Which is, like, ironic. You know, like the song.

But now that we’ve all come out of our enforced hibernation, mindless heritage television doesn’t have quite the draw that it did that lifetime ago. And now they’ve produced an exact replica. 

There’s the artistic longing and romantic yearning of youth, the trips back to the parents in the West of Ireland, and the would-be Joycean rejection of old Ireland in favour of continental cosmopolitanism. And all of it centred around the promise provided by the gateway that is the university. Specifically, Trinity College, Dublin.

What’s so baffling, about both Normal People and Conversation With Friends, is how off it all feels. Those parties and soirees with monied students and the would-be litterati, the seminars they go to and the conversations they have wherever they gather, are all clearly meant to evoke a charged bohemia where anything can happen. And out of which, who knows how many great novels and seminal poetry collections will any day now emerge.

But they don’t look, sound or feel anything like the fiercely bright and perennially competitive beacons of youth that they’re clearly supposed to be. What you get instead are what characters like that look and sound like to people who’ve never actually met anyone like that.

Or who met them so long ago, that their idea of what people like that look and sound like is so hopelessly idealised, that the result is entirely lifeless and quietly cringe-inducing.

Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You.

And then there’s the dialogue. Which seems to have been produced by people whose only training was in watching a series of Aaron Sorkin set-pieces with the sound turned down. They’ve never heard what snappy dialogue is supposed to sound like, so all their characters end up delivering a series of one liners devoid of depth, charm or insight. No wonder there’s absolutely no chemistry between the principals. Nobody should have to deliver lines like that. 

And let’s not even get started on the poetry, or that production of the Tennessee Williams play. 

What was so impressive about I May Destroy You (reviewed by me earlier here), and its world of brilliantly bright young things battling with having to navigate their treacherous, threatening and deeply troubled world, was that the programme makers patently came from and inhabited the world they were depicting. So every scene rings effortlessly true. Likewise Can You Ever Forgive Me?, from 2018, and before that, Wonders Boys, from 2000. All of which cover similar terrain, and revolve around a cast of would-be and actual writers.

But, bafflingly, Normal People was a rip-roaring and stratospheric success. So, quite correctly and very understandably, they’ve gone and produced an exact replica, with another six hours (six hours!!) of more of the same. And for that, I’m afraid, we’ve only ourselves to blame. 

You can see the trailer for I May Destroy You here:

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Hugh Grant in “A Very English Scandal”

A Very English Scandal.

There’s a wonderfully seductive and darkly comic drama available on the BBC and RTE at the moment which delves into sexual mores and politics in a refreshingly mature manner. A Very English Scandal is a dramatization of the non-fiction book of the same name by John Preston, charting the Jeremy Thorpe affair of the 1970s. 

Very much of the you-couldn’t-make-it-up variety, and, without giving anything away, it’s the story of the leader of the Liberal Party in Britain at a time when there was a real possibility that they might have ended up in government there. 

Inconveniently though, one of his former male, ahem, friends refuses to leave him in peace, and so he decides to take definitive and decidedly drastic action.

Ben Whishaw, left, as Norman Scott, right.

I have to confess, the idea of watching a drama revolving around a forgotten leader of a defunct British political party from the 1970s, and starring Hugh Grant, was about as appealing as, well, watching a drama about a forgotten British politician from the 1970s. And I gave it a wide berth first time around. So I’m really pleased to have caught it this time round as it is, as one of its characters might have put it, an absolute hoot.

There are all sorts of reasons as to why it all works so well. For starters, and very surprisingly, Grant gives a career-defining performance as the brilliant, driven if flawed Thorpe. Then there’s the tone it strikes. Pretty much everyone involved seems to have been some class of an eccentric. But instead of playing this for laughs, showrunner Russell T. Davies and director Stephen Frears play it largely straight. Which, of course, makes it all the more comedic.

Then there are the various subplots which complicate the central plot, broaden the story’s horizons and add layers of enveloping irony. Thorpe’s search for a wife, and then for her replacement. His support, as a staunch Liberal, for the bill to have homosexuality decriminalised. And his rise through the Liberal Party and up the greasy pole of British politics, and the politics of party politics that that creates.

Normal People, lovely view.

The contrast with Normal People couldn’t be starker. The latter takes a two hander, bereft of subplots, and tries forlornly to stretch it out over a never-ending six hours. So it’s forced to paper over the dearth of plot with an over-reliance on familiar and exotic locations.

A Very English Scandal also makes wonderful use of its locations, but they are never anything more than the backdrop to a wonderfully dynamic story that’s constantly building in momentum. And the fact that its events are both true and accurately recounted only makes the series all the more remarkable.

You can see the trailer for A Very English Scandal here.

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