‘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.

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below and I shall keep you post­ed every month on All the very best and worst in film, tele­vi­sion and music!