27 August, 2008

What the Papers Say: "Mutual Friends"


Gareth McLean, The Guardian

You'd think that a drama about a group of late-thirtysomething friends that begins with a suicide would be a thing of consequence. You'd be wrong. Everything about Richard Pinto and Anil Gupta's drama - from the lazy reliance on and miscasting of BBC1 "names" Marc Warren, Alexander Armstrong and Keeley Hawes, to the infuriating soundtrack - conspires to deprive it of any kind of weight. So cartoonish and flimsy is Mutual Friends, it's as if those who make and commission drama such as this are frightened of import - or condescendingly suspect that the audience is.

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Lucy Mangan, The Guardian

When I was at primary school, we once did an almost-scientific experiment on a ready-made chicken kiev. You drop the chicken kiev in a Pyrex bowl full of water and time how long it takes for the thing to disintegrate, revealing itself not as a plump, succulent breast but the compressed shreds of gristle and meat from less mentionable poultry-places. It is with no small measure of pride that I record here how Torridon Juniors were years ahead of Jamie Oliver in this field of investigation.

It is to this experiment that my mind returns whenever I watch the latest apparently plump and succulent prime-time offerings from our major television producers. Last night the BBC served up the first episode of Mutual Friends (BBC1), a comedy-drama about six old friends reunited at the funeral of Carl, one of their number.

Carl had thrown himself under a train for reasons hinted at in a DVD left behind for his best friend, Martin, as a kind of audiovisual suicide note, but Not Yet Revealed. What has been revealed is the following: 1) Martin's wife Jen had sex with Carl twice before his death - although as Jen is played by Keeley Hawes, who becomes more ridiculously beautiful with every passing year, we may discover that this rather postponed the fateful day rather than precipitated it. 2) Martin is a miserabilist lawyer who has been ignoring his wife's growing dissatisfactions with life ("What is there to fulfil? We have holidays!"). 3) Ears the size of side plates are no barrier to success with the laydeez, as Alexander Armstrong has been cast as Patrick, the womanising entrepreneur who has to engage Martin's services when his business partner Harry stages a corporate coup. 4) Patrick's ex-fiancee, Liz, is sleeping with Harry, although she clearly still has feelings for Patrick - or at the very least an enduring auricular fixation - because she lets him steal back her £50,000 engagement ring in order to fund his legal fight.

It is, then, Thirtysomething meets Cold Feet meets Mistresses meets a little bit of The Big Chill meets innumerable other comedy dramas whose names escape me because my memory is too full of random pre-pubescent reminiscences to have retained anything new since about 1991. It looks good and slips down easily enough, thanks to good performances all round, and particularly sterling work by Marc Warren - evoking another of life's unarmed and furious losers - but a moment's thought reveals it to be another artfully moulded mound of mechanically recovered meat from the carcasses of other programmes.

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Andrew Billen, The Times


I didn't make it to the Edinburgh Television Festival this year, which was a shame, because we all need a laugh from time to time. I can't quite make out which was the funniest session, although it sounds as if it would have taken a strong man not to weep with mirth at the euphoria that swamped the hall after ITV's new head boy, Peter Fincham, persuaded his fellow practitioners that ITV1 had mastered the art of entertaining the nation and that it would take only a funeral pyre of Ofcom rules for a phoenix of populist creativity to rise triumphant from Gray's Inn Road. This is the outfit whose sole ratings blunderbuss is now the talent show and which has failed to deliver a single workable new drama all year.

Even funnier must have been Armando Iannucci's suggestion that the BBC should launch a subscription channel in order for it to make programmes of the quality and intelligence of The Sopranos, The Wire and Mad Men. And there was I thinking that we all paid a subscription, a compulsory one, to the BBC already and that according to this arrangement it did not labour under the same ratings pressures as the rest of the industry and was, therefore, free to attempt just such projects. At least Iannucci is a professional satirist. I take his modest proposal in the same spirit in which Jonathan Swift issued his.

Yet I share his frustration. Aside from period pieces, most BBC drama is undemandingly entertaining at best. There is, of course, an art to undemanding entertainment and a need for it. As readers have made clear to me when I have scoffed, the ageing, in both senses, detective show New Tricks is much loved. But increasingly it feels as if the BBC has narrowed its contemporary dramatic range down to two genres: the grisly thriller and the hedging-its-bets comedy-drama.

Mutual Friends, which began last night (on Friday in Scotland), is an example of the second. It started with a suicide but ended with a fire engine. Carl's suicide was the writers' device with which to bring together his surviving friends, Martin, played by Marc Warren, and Patrick (Alexander Armstrong). Martin was the worrying type and he had loads to worry about: not only was he about to lose his job as a solicitor but his wife, Jen (Keeley Hawes), announced that she had slept with Carl and that their marriage was in trouble (all Martin's fault).

Patrick also had his problems: a personal financial crisis had got his E-Type Jag repossessed and one of his business partners was edging him out of his own Boden-style catalogue company while edging himself into his former girlfriend's knickers. The worrying thing about Patrick, buoyed along by ego and testosterone, was his inability to worry. Yet this follicly challenged Lothario was not, it transpired, irredeemably self-centred. It was he, after all, who was responsible for the fire engine's comical appearance - called not to hose a conflagration but to fulfil Martin's disgruntled young son's ambition to ride on one.

Warren, Armstrong and Hawes are watchable actors but you couldn't help but wish their parts had been occupied by Jimmy Nesbitt, Robert Bathurst and Helen Baxendale and that, as in Cold Feet, there had been room for a genuinely funny subplot (as regularly supplied by the actors Fay Ripley and John Thomson). Nor could you fail to spot how inspiration was running out even as early as episode one. Martin, for instance, kept being overheard saying things that he shouldn't by the people he was badmouthing. Only once could you accuse the programme of inventiveness and that was in the character of Carl's widow Leigh, played with cheerful understatement by Claire Rushbrook, who had clearly lost her how-to-grieve manual and went round saying how “cross” she was with him.

My hunch is that Mutual Friends will keep its audience, not least because it is unusual in putting at its centre male rather than female friendships. But how, even as I watched its titles as ripped off from Mad Men, I wished for more subtlety, more black humour, more depth of emotion! And how furious I will be if I have to pay a further subscription to the BBC before it supplies it.

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James Walton, Daily Telegraph

Any new drama series about a group of friends approaching middle age faces one big problem. The fact there’s been so many of them already makes it very hard to be original – not least because, as we know from all the others, only a certain number of plots are available. Leading the way are the strains put on a marriage by adultery, having children, not being able to have children, or the husband missing a school play. Nearly as common, though, is the single man whose inability to grow up is expressed mainly by his continuing fondness for flash cars and flash women. And, when the chips are really down, there’s always sudden death.

Rather cunningly, Mutual Friends (BBC1) got a few of these out of the way almost immediately. Carl (Alistair Petrie) said goodbye to his family one morning, walked to the station as usual and threw himself under a train. At this stage, Jen (Keeley Hawes) hadn’t been able to tell her husband Martin (Marc Warren) that she’d recently slept with Carl – and decided that his funeral was just the right moment. In the meantime, Martin’s old pal Patrick (Alexander Armstrong) had arrived at the church in his sports car a bit late, because he’d had to have morning sex with a young blonde first.

Of course, most shows which open with the father of three small children killing himself might have felt obliged to remain quite dark for a while. Yet, as it turned out, Mutual Friends is a comedy drama with the emphasis firmly on the comedy. Carl’s widow Leigh (Claire Rushbrook) was soon dealing with her grief by speaking in a series of wisecracks. Martin and Jen’s decision to go for marriage counselling led to the usual scenes of a wimpy bloke in an armchair saying, “So how does that make you feel?” a lot. Above all, Patrick is so total a representative of male self-centredness that even in an ITV1 sitcom, he might feel slightly broad-brush.

The odd thing, however, is that the result is by no means a disaster. For a start, the script, written by Anil Gupta and Richard Pinto (Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at No 42), seems perfectly content with the fact that it’s not pushing back the frontiers of television – and instead gets on with doing the traditional stuff as efficiently and funnily as possible. A strong cast helps too, with Marc Warren in particular showing an unexpected lightness of touch. (Last night he even managed to do the missing-the-school-play scene without going over the top.)

In the end, none of this is quite enough to solve the mystery of why so much talent has been poured into making such a bog-standard TV drama. On the other hand, it does make you fairly grateful that it has.

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Mutual Friends, BBC1,
Tuesdays, 9:00pm

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