Sadie Jones risked smashing a perfect thing when she signed up to adapt her bookThe Outcast (BBC1, Sunday) for television. The novel, one of my favourites, bursts with a fragile intensity that, while filmic, seemed unlikely to survive the transition. The whole story balances on the emotional state of a child and later, a young man, as we see the consequences of his stifling upbringing.
Where would they find a 10-year-old sophisticated enough to cope with the demands of such a part? It’s like trying to cast Holden Caulfield.
But step forward Finn Elliot, the astonishing young talent who plays Lewis Aldridge for the first half of this taut opening episode. He is thoroughly convincing, particularly as he watches, horrified, his mother’s feet disappear beneath the water, pointed like a ballerina’s as she drowns in a river while on a sunny picnic with him. He stares and stares, eventually emitting a piping call of “Mummy?” as reality hits. It’s almost too much to bear.
In the aftermath he sits, tiny, in a grown-up’s chair as the coroner asks him to recount the awful events, eyes wide, mouth stopped with shock. The excellent George MacKay (recently seen in Pride) takes the baton admirably, his older Lewis a withdrawn, angry young man who disappears into Soho dive bars and orders his own mother’s ruin, gin.
Greg Wise plays Lewis’s father, Gilbert, back from war but shadowed by an incoming doodlebug of doom, as a man unable to show his emotions rather than someone with none. He is all firm handshakes and stiffened jaw, but he can’t hide the rawness of grief. After the drowning, he practices, to an empty room, saying the words, “My wife has died. Lizzie is dead” without flinching.
The bond between mother and son during his father’s absence is the sole oasis of tenderness in Lewis’s life, and it’s a shame the death of Hattie Morahan’s character must be the catalyst for this story, because I really wanted more of her. She is so perfectly cast, the lack of her is palpable on screen. We miss her too.
As the heat of social oppression bakes Lewis’s guilt and anger into a hardened crust, he repels all but his childhood friend Kit Carmichael (Jessica Barden), herself burdened with a stern, violent father (Nathaniel Parker, moving nicely onto the next phase of his career). The wordless scene where Kit starts her period and struggles with the ungainly sanitary belt says everything about her isolation. Every character uses a tenth of the words another writer might employ, because it’s all there. No need for prodding and over-talking.
The tone set by Iain Softley’s beautifully restrained direction and the careful use of music creates a real feeling of loss from the start, just as in the book, but he somehow avoids all hammy visual foreshadowing and narrative signposting, so often used to gee a plot along. Narratively there’s not a hint of “This boy went on a picnic with his mother and you won’t believe how it ended.”
There is no black and white here either, only believable colour. The children “make a mess” and ask too many questions but the adults aren’t monsters, just constrained by society and bound by that Victorian idea about children being quiet, discreet dolls. When they’re not, they are punished with the withdrawal of love, the worst penalty of all. “You are a burden,” Gilbert tells Lewis quite levelly when he finally returns from one of his Soho disappearing acts. No one here is bad, just a victim of their circumstances. Every one of these people could have been happy if they had been allowed to admit their weakness. I can’t believe there is only one more episode.
While Jones bursts the bubble of 1950s Britain, new US drama series UnREAL(Sky Living, Sunday for one week only, the rest of the series is on Lifetime, Tuesdays at 10pm) goes behind the scenes of an American dating show that looks very much like, but isn’t in any way, The Bachelor. On screen it’s all single stem roses, soft lighting and honeyed declarations of love. In the control room, a one-dimensionally horrid producer called Quinn rants and raves about the “good little meat puppets” not hitting their marks and providing sufficient “crazy” to drive things along the way she wants. Albeit heightened, it’s a very good depiction of TV production and genuinely feels like it’s telling this story in a way that hasn’t been tried before.
Our way in is researcher Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby) who returns to work after a breakdown. She is ostensibly the “goodie” but is complicit in the horrific emotional manipulation of the contestants. If it stops one fame-hungry hopeful from putting themselves in the hands of reality TV producers, it’s been worthwhile. Aside from its moral purpose, UnREAL is gloriously trashy fun and an excellent distraction from actual reality.