TV reviews: Us and The Write Offs

Benjie Goodhart / 17 September 2020

Tom Hollander and Saskia Reeves star in Us, an adaptation of the David Nicholls novel about empty nesters, and in The Write Offs Sandi Toksvig looks at how we can help adults with their literacy.

Us, Sunday 20th September, 9pm, BBC One

In the end, everything comes down to perspective. I could be feeling rather frustrated today. One of my kids has a cough, so we are having to self-isolate. There is a 99% probability that she has a mild cold, but it seems that getting a test is currently slightly more difficult than performing neurosurgery, drunk, whilst standing on a blancmange, so we have no way of finding out. If we can’t get a test, we’re all stuck at home eating pot noodles, which is particularly frustrating as, on Friday, my wife and I are due to be going to a very fancy hotel for our tenth wedding anniversary. Instead of champagne and truffles in our suite, it’ll be a warm can of lager and a packet of Wotsits in front of Gogglebox.

But I choose to feel happy today. Because, in the face of testing failures, putative second waves, Californian wildfires and international law controversies, there’s some ruddy lovely telly this week. Just in the nick of time, when the world is climbing aboard a handbasket clutching a one-way ticket to hell, we have a week of feelgood telly that would make the apocalypse itself seem rather jolly.

Later in the week we have a fabulous new two-part series, The Write Offs (see below), Grayson Perry touring the US on his motorbike, and the sheer, unadulterated bliss of a new series of Bake Off. But first, we have this utterly superb new four-part drama series, Us.

Us is based on the novel of the same name by David Nicholls, writer of Starter for Ten and One Day. It stars the luminescent talents of Tom Hollander and Saskia Reeves as husband-and-wife Douglas and Connie Petersen. Their son, Albie (an excellent display of teenage angst and attitude from Tom Taylor) is about to fly the coop, and Connie is looking at empty nest syndrome with Douglas and feeling… well… empty. “You’re great. I just don’t think I can spend my whole life with you,” she announces to her heartbroken spouse. Bless her, it can’t be an easy conversation to have. She dreads the term ‘box sets’ and the banal existence it implies. “Every time I hear it, I can feel my heart racing.” Okay, I’m beginning to lose sympathy with her at this stage. Nobody impugns a box set on my watch. Ridiculous. I’d settle down with the Bride of Frankenstein if she had access to a good streaming service.

Poor Douglas is bereft. He veers from heartbroken to vicious. But the two decide that their approaching three-week holiday, a tour around some of the finest cities in Europe, should go ahead anyway. This is clearly insanity. As a family, we can’t take a flight to Spain without all vowing to murder each other. The idea of repairing a relationship in the midst of three weeks of travelling is as impossible as… as… as securing a Covid test.

Not that Connie thinks they are repairing the relationship. She’s just going along for a last hurrah. But Douglas has other ideas. And so we follow them – lovelorn Douglas, sadly resigned Connie, and grumpy Albie, as embark on their Grand Tour. Three weeks, 12 countries, six cities. Their present-day story is cleverly intercut with a flashback to them meeting and falling in love 24 years previously (two more beautifully charismatic performances, from Iain De Caestecker and Gina Bramhill).

This is glorious fare, one minute achingly sad, the next touching and funny. And, as the story meanders through Paris, then on to Amsterdam, Venice and beyond, we are treated to heavenly views of some of Europe’s most attractive cities.

It quickly becomes apparent that Douglas has his work cut out to change Connie’s mind. He is uptight, anxious, and grumpy. He’s set in his ways, a bit of a philistine when it comes to art, and obsessed with his step count. In short, he is tricky and dull. He is, rather annoyingly, almost identical to me in every respect. As I watched this, I found myself squirming with discomfort, casting sidelong glances at my wife. But even with these rather jarring moments of self-awareness thrown in, I found Us to be a soaring, delightful, beautiful and wry drama, visually stunning and filled with heart. Enjoy.

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The Write Offs 1/2, Tuesday 22nd September, 9:30pm, Channel 4

Oh Sandi. Wherefore art thou, pint-sized comedian of Danish origin? Bake Off begins at 8pm on Tuesday 22nd, and you will not be there to present it, with your cheerily chirpy quips and your reassuring maternal manner. The idea of Bake Off fills me with joy, but the idea of not seeing you on our screens fills me with existential despair, the way a good dollop of crème-pat fills a profiterole. When, and where, will you pop up next, oh posh-voiced miniature angel?

Oh, jolly good. She’s presenting this. Right, as you were.

This new two-part series is the ideal vehicle for our Sandi. (Actually, the ideal vehicle for her might be one of those toddlers’ red cars you can pedal about in, but you get the idea). It takes a group of eight adults who can’t read or write, and tries to change their lives in 18 weeks.

How, I hear you ask, did they manage to find eight adults who can’t read and write? Well, it turns out it’s not as unusual as you might think. Shockingly so. According to the voiceover, over 8 million adults in the UK struggle to read, and don’t have basic literacy skills. How the hell did we get to that situation? How is it possible to go to school for 12 years and come out illiterate?

The group is set a series of tasks to assess their reading level, including being asked to spell words aloud, and sitting a written test. It is all too much for stay-at-home dad Craig, 30, who has severe dyslexia. Reminded of school, he suffers a panic attack and has to leave. Of his school days, he says: “I used to help the janitors out. I used to ride the lawnmowers… that’s what I did for the majority of my lessons.” Oh. That’ in a nutshell, is how we got to this situation. We gave up on the difficult cases.

“It’d be nice to feel a little bit normal,” says Craig. “Sometimes you just feel so alone.” It’s not difficult to imagine the frustrations and inhibitions illiteracy must cause. They can’t read letters, bank statements, emails from school, kids’ homework, street signs, bus signs, prescriptions, instructions, recipes, TV schedules, text messages. Life is designed around our ability to read. If you can’t do it, it comes to define you.

That is why this is such a powerful programme. This is genuinely life-changing stuff. Emily would be able to read to her daughter. Craig would be able to fill out a form at the job centre. 66-year-old Tommy would be able to write a letter to thank all the people who have helped him over the years.

The group are allocated individual tutors, who create bespoke reading programmes for their students. Occasionally, they are set challenges. In the first, the eight people are split into four pairs and told to navigate to a restaurant where Sandi is sitting waiting for them, “bravely navigating the snack menu.” In the second, the group are given a shopping list and sent off to buy it, before being asked to follow a recipe. Some may end up with chilli paste rather than chilled pastry, but the results are fantastic, and the sense of accomplishment as a special guest judge samples their dishes is a joy to behold.

Rumour has it episode two is likely to leave you so happily tearful you might end up dehydrated. Well, good, we could all do with an emotional lift right now. But I wouldn’t save all your tissues for the second episode, because this one ends with quite a moment itself. Tommy has written his letter. It’s a belter. Left me with a real lump in my throat. Oh, I hope that’s not a Covid symptom. Better book me a test…

The best… and the rest:

Sunday 20th September

Family Fortunes, 8pm, ITV: The age-old gameshow returns with a brand new host – Gino D’Acampo, because an Italian chef is obviously the logical presenter for the series. Other than that, the format remains the same – you know the drill…

Scotland’s Scenic Railways, 8pm, Channel 4: Scotland’s railways are among the most beautiful in the world. This programme follows the people who work on them, and the steam enthusiasts who keep a little slice of history alive.

Monday 21st September

Ghosts, 8:30pm, BBC One: The amiably daft sitcom, about a cash-strapped couple who inherit a crumbling country pile filled with ghosts, returns for a welcome second series. Delightfully daft.

Brain Surgeons: Between Life and Death, 9pm, Channel 4: New documentary series following staff and patients at the Neurological Centre in Southampton. Tonight, 12-year-old Matthew is having a brain tumour removed.

Tuesday 22nd September

The Great British Bake Off, 8pm, Channel 4: Hurrah. It’s back. Sandi Toksvig may have gone, replaced by Matt Lucas, but the show will go on and, as ever, it is the bakers, and their extraordinary creations, who are the stars. On your marks, get set, bake.

Wednesday 23rd September

Grayson Perry’s Big American Road Trip, 10pm, Channel 4: The artist dons his (inevitably colourful) motorbike leathers, mounts his Harley, and heads into the American heartland to take the political, social and cultural temperature of a nation on the brink of a monumental election. Tonight’s series opener is about race, and inevitably suffers from having been filmed before George Floyd’s murder, but is gripping and thoughtful TV nevertheless.

Thursday 24th September

Inside Culture with Mary Beard, 7:30pm, BBC Two: The academic presents a new series looking at the history of British culture. This first access sees her getting up close and personal with Stonehenge.

The Grand Party Hotel 1/4, 8pm, BBC One: The Shankly Hotel in Liverpool features vast party suites on its top floor, able to accommodate up to 24 guests at once. This series follows some of the groups who come to town to let their hair down, and the variety of reasons that brought them there in the first place.

London Zoo: An Extraordinary Year, 9pm, ITV: A two-part documentary series looking at how staff at London Zoo coped with the peculiar demands of lockdown, and managed to care for the animals in the absence of any visitors and reduced staff numbers.

Friday 25th September

Great British Bake Off: An Extra Slice 1/10, 8pm, Channel 4: Jo Brand returns with the series that takes a sideways look at all things Bake Off.

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