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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Barbara Ellen

The week in TV: Mayflies; Without Sin; Prince Andrew: The Musical; Marie Antoinette

Tony Curran, left, and Martin Compston in Mayflies
Tony Curran, left, and Martin Compston in the ‘heartbreaking and uplifting’ Mayflies. BBC/Synchronicity Films Limited Photograph: Jamie Simpson/BBC/Synchronicity Films Limited

Mayflies (BBC One) | iPlayer
Without Sin (ITVX) |
Prince Andrew: The Musical (Channel 4) | All 4
Marie Antoinette (BBC Two) | iPlayer

Watching BBC One’s Mayflies, you first wonder if it’s a male weepie; a kind of Beaches for blokes. Adapted by Andrea Gibb (Elizabeth Is Missing) from the Andrew O’Hagan novel, it wastes no time in reaching for the emotional jugular. From the moment vivid teacher Tully (Tony Curran) tells his thoughtful writer friend Jimmy (Martin Compston) that he has terminal cancer, everything floods out – sadness, fear, humour, anger, memory – over two beautifully paced, profoundly demanding episodes. This is a drama that’s not only in touch with its feelings; it needs you to be in touch with them too.

Packed with disparate themes (love, class, assisted dying), Mayflies is also about the knotty bonds forged in youth. We see the pair as teenagers in 1980s Scotland – sensitive Jimmy (Rian Gordon) and charismatic Tully (Tom Glynn-Carney), both troubled but full of grit and hope, living for music, going with friends to see a post-punk festival in Manchester and spotting their heroes (“Johnny Marr, ya legend!”). Their mutual devotion is irrefutable, but is it the answer now? Is it fair (spoiler alert) that Tully asks Jimmy to help him with the darkest, most intense level of assistance? (“Don’t let me die like a prick.” “We all die like pricks”). It’s left to the women – Tully’s Anna (Ashley Jensen) and Jimmy’s Iona (Tracy Ifeachor) – to pour cold reality over the idea that brotherhood trumps all.

If that sounds wretched and soggy, the televisual equivalent of a bed bath with a wet wipe, it’s not at all. The rough, throwaway humour (“Are you sure you should be smoking?” “That nag has bolted”) stops things from collapsing into trite, fridge-magnet affirmations or gloopy mawkishness. All the performances are extraordinary, particularly from Curran and Jensen as Tully and Anna plummet through hell without a parachute. Mayflies emerges as a fearlessly expressive poem about life, death and love, at once heartbreaking and uplifting. What a powerful drama to see out the old year.

As father and daughter in 2010’s This Is England ’86, the chemistry between Johnny Harris and Vicky McClure was palpable, albeit toxic. Now they’re reunited in ITV’s four-part Nottingham-set thriller Without Sin, created and written by Frances Poletti. McClure plays Stella, a grieving mother who uses a restorative justice scheme to visit convicted murderer Charles (Harris) in prison to get answers about how her daughter Maisy died.

Cab driver Stella (vacant gaze; long “safety blanket” hair) is living a half-life, hating herself for being awol when her daughter was killed. Even a tryst with her ex, Maisy’s father Paul (Perry Fitzgerald), seems mechanical; less about sex than numbing shared pain. When Stella visits Charles, there’s an expectation of standard screen-murderer fare (coldness, evil, a taunt or two?). However, soft-spoken, urgent Charles isn’t quite what you expect. Without divulging spoilers, he isn’t what Stella expects either.

Vicky McClure and Johnny Harris in Without Sin.
Vicky McClure and Johnny Harris in Without Sin. ITVX Photograph: ITVX

Without Sin evolves into her circuitous quest for the truth, taking in drugs, family dysfunction, gangsters, human fallibility and imperilled teenagers. Stuck in prison, Charles is a shape-shifting study in ambiguity: is he a force for good (telling the truth) or bad (toying with Stella)? The plot becomes too tangled and busy – like a dangerously overloaded plug extension – but it works hard to avoid being formulaic, with a twist creeping up on you like a slowly spreading shadow.

I feel guilty for not liking the hour-long Prince Andrew: The Musical more. Part of Channel 4’s Truth and Dare: 40 Years of Punching Boundaries season, it deserves credit for cocking a subversive snook at the ultimate Prince Charmless, who fraternised with Ghislaine Maxwell and Jeffrey Epstein (even after Epstein was convicted as a sex offender), and (allegedly) then some.

Creator Kieran Hodgson stars as Andrew (all entitled smarm), with the cast immediately diving into a musical number about the Newsnight interview (lack of sweat; Woking pizza parlours), with Emily Maitlis (Emma Sidi) skewering princely waffle: “‘My paedo friend was out of jail so why not go out for dinner?’” I enjoy the cast camply shimmying around the “palace” (Brocket Hall, Hertfordshire).

Emma Sidi, Munya Chawawa, Kieran Hodgson and Jenny Bede in Prince Andrew: The Musical.
Emma Sidi, Munya Chawawa, Kieran Hodgson and Jenny Bede in Prince Andrew: The Musical. Channel 4 Photograph: Rob Parfitt/Channel 4

Sadly, PA:TM then takes a prolonged, turgid tour through Andrew’s yawn-fuelled biography: “Randy Andy”, the Falklands war, Sarah Ferguson. Epstein and Maxwell appear only as images (a backdrop of Maxwell’s face) or an off-screen vocal impersonation: “Your Royal Highness, this is Jeffrey.” There’s no spoofing of the Queen (fair enough). Harry Enfield appears so fleetingly as Tony Blair, it’s barely worth his turning up.

A clever number between Charles (Munya Chawawa) and Andrew (“Every heir needs a ne’er do well”) perks things up, but ultimately what amounts to cheap-seats regal panto fails the “too soon?” test. (Andrew only agreed to settle the sexual assault allegations with an “undisclosed sum” earlier this year.) Nor are things helped by the recent six-hour Harry and Meghan Netflix marathon. Not for the first time, I wonder: aren’t we all royally maxed out?

Over on BBC Two there’s more royal fare, of the 18th-century variety, with the eight-part Franco-British drama Marie Antoinette, created by Deborah Davis, who won a screenwriting Bafta for 2018’s The Favourite. Emilia Schüle stars in the title role, with Louis Cunningham as her husband and a deliciously fruity James Purefoy as his priapic grandfather.

It isn’t long before I realise my knowledge of the ill-fated Austrian émigré is Ladybird book-level patchy at best (“Let them eat cake”; play-acting at being a peasant; execution by guillotine during the French Revolution). This series brings home how young Marie Antoinette was when she married (14! ); her vulnerability (surrounded by conniving enemies); and the fear-drenched failure to produce an heir with an inexperienced husband who for years shied away from sex.

Emilia Schüle and Louis Cunningham in Marie Antoinette. BBC
‘Sumptuous’: Emilia Schüle and Louis Cunningham in Marie Antoinette. BBC Photograph: Caroline Dubois/BBC/Capa Drama/Banijay Studios France/Les Gens/Canal+

It soon becomes clear the couple are spoiled, overwhelmed children. No wonder Marie Antoinette has Alice in Wonderland-style nightmares about being dragged underwater by a gigantic necklace. Five episodes in, it looks as if we’re not going to get to the revolution, so maybe a second is already planned. I hope so. It’s sumptuous period fare, but suffused with dread and melancholy; a sense of spiders and vermin scuttling over the bowls of pretty bonbons.

Star ratings (out of five)
Mayflies ★★★★★
Without Sin ★★★
Prince Andrew: The Musical ★★
Marie Antoinette ★★★

What else I’m watching

I Hate Suzie Too
Sky Atlantic/Now
Second series of the curdled celebrity fable starring Billie Piper, who co-writes with Lucy Prebble. Dealing with everything from reality dance shows to home pregnancy terminations, Suzie still makes 21st-century fame look like the worst torture anyone could endure.

Nothing screams “yuletide fun!” like the festive special from the most dysfunctional yummy/slummy mummies on the block. Regulars Anna Maxwell Martin, Diane Morgan and co get together for a nightmarish “blended” Christmas.

Ritzy drama about a self-made wealthy British Nigerian family, created by Abby Ajayi (The First Lady). Vaunted as the “black Succession”, it’s not there – yet! – but there’s an explosive high-stakes opener dealing with the death of a patriarch.

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