TV review: Life and Sex on the Beach

Benjie Goodhart / 25 September 2020

Life, a new drama from playwright and Doctor Foster creator Mike Bartlett, starts on BBC One, and reporter Seyi Rhodes investigates the stories of older women holidaying in The Gambia to meet younger men.

Life, Tuesday 29th September, 9pm, BBC One

Mike Bartlett, the playwright behind this new six-part drama series, is nothing if not versatile. He has written for stage, radio and television, and his work ranges from adaptations of Maxim Gorky to plays about climate change, a look at the reign of King Charles III told entirely in blank verse, to an episode of Doctor Who. He is perhaps best-known for writing the gripping, melodramatic and utterly watchable hokum that was Doctor Foster, the drama series starring Suranne Jones that ran for two series.

This new series comes with the rather portentous title, ‘Life’. It makes me not want to like it. Who the hell calls a drama series ‘Life’? That’s a pretty big claim, right there. Also, unless you happen to live in a large Mancunian townhouse that has been converted into flats, and have an extremely dramatic and slightly chaotic personal life, this isn’t what your life is like at all.

It grieves me, then, to tell you that this is series is a thing of wonder. Charming, moving, fast-paced, well-characterised, beautifully performed, and completely involving and beguiling from the first moment.

We begin with Alison Steadman (which, lets face it, is about as good a way of beginning a drama as it’s possible to get). She plays Gail, a woman approaching 70. When I say she is approaching 70, I mean both that her milestone birthday is a few days away, and she is about to hit 70mph while roaring through the backstreets of Manchester. She drives like Lewis Hamilton after six espressos. She’s panicking about being late to pick up her obnoxious husband Henry (Peter Davison). En route, she nearly runs over a woman who it turns out she went to school with. And so begins an encounter that will change all of their lives.

Gail and Henry live on the ground floor of a large townhouse that has been converted into four flats. As luck would have it, the residents of all four flats appear to be approaching major crossroads in their lives. (I suppose it would make for a fairly boring drama if everyone was contentedly watching Homes Under the Hammer and doing their tax returns all series).

Hannah is young and pregnant. Very pregnant. She’s engaged to a slightly charmless chap called Liam, who is not the father of her child (kids these days, eh?) Indeed, she’s not seen the father since they enjoyed a one-night stand almost nine months previously. Now he’s back from travelling, and keen to pull his weight. But how will his involvement impact on Liam and Hannah’s burgeoning relationship?

In one of the upstairs flats are David (Adrian Lester) and Kelly (Rachel Stirling, daughter of the late and hugely lamented Diana Rigg) who seem to be having relationship difficulties. She’s packing David off on holiday on his own, and tearfully apologising for not accompanying him. David appears to be enjoying his holiday about as much as if he’d taken a trip to Wuhan in February. But then the reason for the depth of his misery becomes agonisingly apparent.

Finally there is Belle (Victoria Hamilton, reprising her role from Doctor Foster, although it doesn’t matter a fig if you’ve not seen it.) Belle is a pilates teacher, and so achingly lonely it’s almost painful to look at her (it is a strikingly vulnerable and moving performance). She is inventing reasons to get a local handyman round to her flat. What she ends up with, to her dismay, is her gobby teenage niece Maya, who has to come and stay when her mother is sectioned. But that, it seems, may be the least of Belle’s problems.

This is a story about love and loneliness, about how we drift in and out of each others’ lives, and how random encounters and twists of fate can change our direction of travel forever. It’s funny, tender, and at times achingly sad. Much like life, then. Dammit, maybe the title’s okay after all.

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Sex on the Beach, Monday 28th September, 10pm, Channel 4

The other day I found a photograph of myself as a 20-year-old. I was working on a summer camp in America. I had long, flowing blond locks tied back in a ponytail, I was wearing nothing but shorts and combat boots and a winning smile. I had, with absolutely no work involved in it whatsoever, a washboard stomach and pectoral muscles. I was clear-eyed, smooth-skinned, tanned, athletic, and full of vim and vigour.

The same photo now would look a tad different. For a start, the only smooth skin I’ve got now is where the long hair used to be – I’ve been bald since my mid-20s. Not that I am entirely hairless – oh no, that would be too simple. I have a decent smattering of hair on my shoulders and back, and protruding from my ears, not to mention where my pectoral muscles would be, if they weren’t concealed by fleshy man-boobs. The washboard stomach is similarly encased in a lardy barrel of doughnuts, Frazzles and Prosecco. It’s fair to say, the rigours of time have exacted their price.

I’m hardly unique in this respect. In many ways, we get much better as we get older – we’re more experienced, wiser, more considered, less impulsive. But very few of us are in better shape now than when we were 20. This may be why you regularly see wealthy, ageing men with women young enough to be their granddaughters on their arm. Nobody really bats an eyelid. But woe betide the woman who decides to get a similar spot of eye candy.

Which brings us to this one-off documentary, about older women travelling to The Gambia – or Granbia, as it is known – in search of love, in the rather chiselled form of young, local men.

Reporter Seyi Rhodes begins his investigation by meeting two women from Chingford, Essex: Michelle, 58, and 60-year old P (or Pea, or, God forbid, Pee – it’s not quite clear). P has been going to The Gambia for a few years, and will visit up to four times per annum. Michelle, meanwhile is married to Ebou, who she’s been seeing for two years. Seyi asks ominously how old he is. Michelle says he’s 49. Okay, he may not be eligible for Saga yet, but he’s hardly been snatched from his cradle! Seyi asks P if she’s uncomfortable with the moral aspects of travelling to The Gambia to essentially pick up a younger local man. “I do what I want with my nunu,” she replies. Let’s just draw a discreet veil over what, precisely, a nunu is. Suffice to say, it’s not the name of a Teletubby.

A few weeks later, Seyi travels to The Gambia, where he meets up with P. She’s already having a fine old time. She’s hooked up with a chap called “Bob the Builder”, and judging by P’s raucous laugh, he does indeed appear to be able to fix it. Next, Seyi meets Alka, a 32-year-old who works in a craft market, and proclaims strong feelings for his girlfriend, who lives in Belgium, and is 85. It may or may not help that she has, so far, sent him 60,000 euros. Alka and Seyi encounter a local man, who calls himself Karl Marx, who is intent on picking up older female tourists at the beach. I don’t think Karl Marx is his real name, and it seems an odd choice to have arrived upon – though, to be fair, both seem to be quite eager to see the redistribution of wealth.

The whole thing is slightly unedifying. It is unclear who is exploiting whom in this situation, but the whole scenario seems a little cold and transactional. Rather frustratingly, the film fails to draw any firm conclusions, and leaves too many loose ends, but this is nevertheless an interesting, if slightly gloomy, study of loneliness, poverty and exploitation.

The best… and the rest:

Saturday 26th September

Bernard Haitink: The Enigmatic Maestro, 7:30pm, BBC Two: Documentary following the Dutch conductor in his last year before retiring, aged 90. The slacker.

Elizabeth and Margaret: Love and Loyalty, 8pm, Channel 5: Quite how Channel 5 manages to find a new royal documentary to screen every single Saturday is a mystery, but here’s the latest, a study of the close but complicated relationship between the Queen and her younger sister.

Monday 28th September

Freddie Flintoff: Living with Bulimia, 9pm, BBC One: Former England cricketer Flintoff faces up to the eating disorder that has plagued him for 20 years, in this fascinating and honest documentary.

The Shipman Files: A Very British Crime Story 1/3, 9pm, BBC Two: Three-part documentary series (over consecutive nights) examining the nation’s most prolific serial killer, and asking whether our attitudes to the elderly allowed him to remain undiscovered for so long.

Honour 1/2, 9pm, ITV: Fact-based drama, starring Keeley Hawes, about the disappearance of Banaz Mahmod, who had been to the police five times to report threats to her life before she went missing. Concludes tomorrow.

Police Suspect No/. 1, 1/4, 9pm, Channel 5: Wow! A documentary following the police in their day-to-day work solving crime. Why did nobody think of this before? Oh wait…

Wednesday 30th September

The Savoy 1/4, 9pm, ITV: Fly-on-the-ever-so-posh-silk-bedecked-wall documentary series, looking at life in one of the world’s most famous hotels, during one of the most tumultuous periods in its history (thanks again, COVID!).

Thursday 1st October

The Apprentice: The Best Bits, 9pm, BBC One: This new series begins with a look back at the most memorable characters to have featured on the show. As the whole #series is predicated upon people being mean-spirited, back-stabbing, mercenary, arrogant and charmless, it shouldn’t take long.

Friday 2nd October

Mountain Vets 1/6, 8pm, BBC Two: This new series looking at the life and work of a team of vets in rural Northern Ireland begins with a double-header at 8pm and 8:30pm.

Have I Got News For You 1/10, 9pm, BBC One: The flagship entertainment show returns with its sideways look at current affairs, with Ian Hislop and Paul Merton joined by Katy Balls, Josh Widdicombe and host Damian Lewis.

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