This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 19 November 2016.
MY MOTHER AND OTHER STRANGERS
Sunday, BBC One
THE PITY OF WAR: THE LIVES AND LOVES OF THE WAR POETS
As befits the spirit of Remembrance Sunday, our rival networks came together last weekend to commemorate both world wars.
Despite being tainted with a nagging tug of predictability, BBC One’s MY MOTHER AND OTHER STRANGERS is a fairly promising new drama about life in a rural Northern Ireland parish in 1943.
The opening scenes didn’t bode well. They unfurled in a studiously tasteful procession of wartime clichés: children staring up at bombers flying overhead; women in woollen berets riding bicycles; flat-capped men grumbling about spam; US airmen swaggering into town on a wave of big band jazz (“All right, boys, this is a dance, but they call it a ceilidh!”).
The only thing missing was our old friend, the untethered horse cantering down a cobbled high street.
Thankfully, those dubious first impressions were gradually laid to rest. Much like Call the Midwife, this is a cosmetically pretty – it’s beautifully photographed - yet fundamentally solemn and understated Sunday night confection.
Our protagonists are the Coyne family. Mother Rose (Hattie Morahan, hitherto best known as the neurotic Jane from Outnumbered) is an educated Englishwoman whose role as a pillar of the community still can’t overcome her alien status. Although somewhat snobbish, she’s perceptive, humane and – so it transpired – willing to take up arms.
Her conflicted Irish husband, Michael, runs the local boozer, while her teenage daughter and young son (whose weathered adult narration, courtesy of Ciaran Hinds, provides the requisite air of ambiguous nostalgia) struggle to make sense of their war-torn playground.
In time-honoured and occasionally over-literal fashion, it’s a child’s-eye view of a perplexing adult world.
When Rose encountered a Tennyson-quoting US army captain (Mad Men actor Aaron Staton) on a picturesque clifftop, the stage was set for an inevitable “will they, won’t they?” romance. Likewise, there were few surprises in the story of Rose’s innocent daughter falling for a charming American airman. His cards were marked from the moment he appeared.
Nevertheless, it was a rather poignant vignette about adolescent confusion and the tragedy of young men being sent off to certain death. These stories are fictional, although loosely based on actual incidents. A palpable sense of sadness permeates proceedings, and writer Barry Devlin isn’t afraid to explore the underlying darkness, violence and bigotry of his rain-drenched parish.
If he cuts back on the clichés, then I don’t see why this sincerely tender drama couldn’t run and run.
Though generally dismissed as a bulwark of bottom-drawer populism, ITV is very occasionally capable of producing programmes of surprising sensitivity and depth.
THE PITY OF WAR: THE LIVES AND LOVES OF THE WAR POETS was one such anomaly.
This one-off docudrama paid tribute to the soldiers whose experiences in the trenches during World War One inspired some the greatest anti-war poetry ever written.
It was framed by John Hurt as an ageing Siegfried Sassoon, still haunted by the war 50 years later. The great Thespian’s husky voice caressed Sassoon’s starkly disillusioned words, while younger actors read from letters, diaries and poems to provide a horrifyingly vivid picture of life on the frontline.
The emotionally-charged yet platonic mentor/student relationship between Sassoon and Wilfred Owen was touchingly portrayed. Owen, our greatest wartime poet, was killed in action just one week before Armistice Day. But his harrowing work lives on.
This graceful programme served as a fitting testament to the subversive genius of two outstanding poets, and to the fallen soldiers whose hellish nightmare they immortalised so unsparingly.