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TV review: Finding Alice

Benjie Goodhart / 15 January 2021

Keeley Hawes, Joanna Lumley and Nigel Havers star in new ITV bereavement drama Finding Alice that's part comedy, part tragedy and part thriller.

Finding Alice 1/6, Sunday 17th January, 9pm, ITV

Wow. This is quite the scheduling dilemma. ITV’s new comedy drama, about a woman dealing with bereavement after her husband dies suddenly, is going out just at the moment when the pandemic is at its peak, and people are dying at a grimly alarming rate. To bring out a series which gets more than a few laughs out of a man’s death, and how it affects his family, could be seen as distinctly crass. Certainly, the wisecracking widow and her miraculously strong and sorted teenage daughter are holding it together better than people do in real life. In real life, bereavement is a squalid mess of tears and snot and red eyes and sore noses and despair.

And yet, it has to be said that Finding Alice is, well, very good. In fact, I loved it. Not in spite of its slightly unreal and chirpy approach to death, but because of it. Frankly, reality can go and do one just now. There is quite enough tragedy and ugliness going on in the world right now. What we really don’t need at the moment is a brutally harrowing drama about a woman slowly going off the rails due to the shattering depths of her grief. If it was on Channel 4, she’d become an alcoholic, and her daughter would become a junkie. But it’s on ITV, so instead we get a rather whimsical, soft-focus look at grief and loss. So thank goodness this is an ITV drama. (That may well be a sentence I never write again in my life).

Keeley Hawes (surely the busiest person in television) plays Alice. Alice is moving into a brand new house designed and built from scratch by her developer husband Harry (Jason Merrells). Harry has done all the planning himself, both the exterior and the interior, and is showing Alice and their daughter Charlotte (Isabella Pappas) round for the first time. Harry is clearly a braver man than I, designing the new family home without consulting his wife. I’m not even allowed to put out the guest towels on my own, in case I choose the wrong ones. Not that we’ve had to use the guest towels much recently.

Anyway, Harry has designed quite the house. It’s super-modern, and everything is voice-activated. So he can ask the lights to come on, or the curtains to close, and lo, it shall come to pass. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to work for anyone else’s voice. Ah well, that’s not a problem, so long as Harry doesn’t ever really go anywhere.

Oh.

On their first evening in the house, Harry goes and dies. Now Alice is left in a house she doesn’t really understand, where nothing works to her voice commands, and she can’t find the fridge (it’s one of those minimalist designs where everything is hidden).

Her life is further complicated by the (largely) well-meaning interventions of her parents, and parents-in-law. Harry’s parents (played by Kenneth Cranham and Gemma Jones) seem remarkably unaffected by the death of their son. I’ve seen people fuss more about letting the bread go mouldy. Meanwhile, Alice’s mother (played by Joanna Lumley) seems to see it as an opportunity to get a few insults off at her daughter. Who, for example, would actually greet a new widow with the words “What are you wearing?” Only Alice’s dad (Nigel Havers) seems to show any grief, and even that is milked for laughs.

But, like I say, who needs drama verité at a time like this? Instead, we get a comedy-grumpy mortician, some intriguingly mysterious phone calls, an office break in, and some shady financial goings on. It seems that Harry might have been keeping a few secrets from Alice – and now those secrets are starting to unravel. Not that Harry needs to worry.

I have to say, the hour I spent watching this flew by. It is a slightly ridiculous, star-studded story that is part comedy, part tragedy and part thriller. But it’s all good knockabout fun, and I’ll take a double dose of that just now.

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Shut-Ins: Britain’s Fattest People 1/3, Monday 18th January, 10pm, Channel 4

Lockdown is rubbish. Today, I limited myself to four trips to the park, and each time I only met up with five of my mates. This evening, all we can do is pop next door for a dinner party, and then go for a late-night lock-in in the pub. After that, I might just go around licking random strangers. So, you see, it’s all a bit restrictive.

Alright, alright, you can stop dialling the police, you miserable snitches. I’ve been at home, apart from a rather grey trudge around a muddy park with a damp dog and two deeply unenthusiastic children. Going out only once a day is a bit rubbish, but it’s not forever. In fact, it’s probably only for a couple of months.

Imagine, then, being 23-year-old AJ, from Airdrie, whose life is one permanent lockdown. AJ is 41 stone (four times his recommended weight), is addicted to food, and is one of the UK’s estimated 50,000 super-morbidly obese people. AJ has been in the house for six years, almost never leaving the front door. AJ sleeps, propped up, on a mattress on the living room floor, wearing a sleep mask, with mum Sharon on a mattress alongside in case of breathing difficulties in the night. She has to shower AJ, and help with every aspect of self-care. “My role is, at the moment, I am mother to a giant baby.”

Putting on weight is easy to do. Dear heavens, we’ve all done it this year. Sitting on the sofa, shovelling biscuits down and numbing ourselves in the sweet embrace of the Sauvignon grape, we have put on a fair whack of the old timber. But you don’t get to be 41-stone without there being a serious issue in there somewhere. And AJ is carrying a lot around, mentally as well as physically.

Four years ago, AJ was known as Amy, but has since changed their name and switched their pronoun from ‘she’ to ‘they’. (They are pronouns, right? I never paid much attention to all that stuff at school…) “My body doesn’t reflect who I am,” they say, sadly. AJ wants a mastectomy and a hysterectomy.

The utter, horrifying reality of feeling you have been born the wrong gender must be almost unbearable. But for AJ, there have been other issues along the way. Inevitably, and with heart breaking predictability, the b-word must come into play here: Bullying. AJ can’t speak about their experiences at the hands of their peers without weeping. School was a living nightmare, due to AJ’s weight. Now, one of the reasons they won’t leave the house is because small children stare, and people make comments. It’s enough to make you despair just watching it – so imagine how AJ must feel.

The sad truth is that AJ, who is eating 5000 calories-a-day, is likely to be dead in ten years unless they take action. The plan is to have bariatric surgery. AJ has high hopes for the future, delivered through a veil of tears. “I want life to be different. To be able to play football and drive, things like that.”

But it’s not as simple as just turning up and having your stomach stapled. There are psychological evaluations and lifestyle changes that need to happen first. AJ has a lot of work to do. But the prize – the simple prize of being able to go outdoors, enjoy a walk, go to the shops or drive a car – is worth more than any other prize I’ve ever heard of. All viewers will wish AJ well in their endeavours. In the next programme, we’ll find out just how successful they’ve been.

The best… and the rest:

Saturday 16th January

Wallis Simpson: Femme Fatale, 9:30pm, Channel 5: A profile of Wallis Simpson, whose infamy seems to grow with each passing year. But, as this documentary focusing on her early life asks, is her image as a scheming seductress actually rather unfair?

Sunday 17th January

Dancing On Ice, 6pm, ITV: Jayne and Chris and Pip and Holly return for the annual ice-fest. This year’s contestants include Denise van Outen, Jason Donovan, Myleene Klass, Colin Jackson, Rebekah Vardy and someone who should know a thing or two about sliding about on ice, former Olympic skier Graham Bell.

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, 8pm, ITV: Fifteen questions, four lifelines, and one Jeremy Clarkson. The quiz with the biggest prize on TV is back. Fastest fingers first…

Rich Holiday Poor Holiday, Channel 5, 9pm: Families of wildly different means swap holidays to learn about each other and, ultimately (cue violin music) about themselves.

10 Ways to Lose 10 Years, 10pm, Channel 5: Experts give beauty and fashion tips to help us all look ten years younger. Hold on… if I looked ten years younger than I already look, people would think I was eleven!

Monday 18th January

Devon and Cornwall, 8pm, Channel 4: The coastal town of Looe, in Cornwall, is gearing up for the annual one-mile swim from St George’s Island back to the town beach.

Cornwall: This Fishing Life, 9pm, BBC Two: Is the county permanently awash with film crews? Return of the documentary series. Summer is arriving in the port of Newquay, and the fishing fleet, beached for much of the year by Covid, is urgently attempting to make up for lost time.

Long Lost Family 1/5, 9pm, ITV: Davina McCall and Nicky Campbell return with the always-emotional series that seeks to reunite estranged or long-parted family members. Tonight, they try to reunite a couple with the child they were forced to give up when they were homeless.

Tuesday 19th January

Winterwatch 1/8, 8pm, BBC Two: The series returns with its annual look at the winter wildlife stories from around the UK. This year, Chris Packham is in his native New Forest, while there is a team in Wales looking for murmurations, and another in Sherwood Forest on the trail of the elusive goshawk. Continues tomorrow.

Silenced: the Hidden Story of Disabled Britain, 9pm, BBC Two: Cerrie Burnell presents a history of disabled people in Britain and their struggle to have their human rights respected.

Outbreak: The Virus that Struck the World, 9pm, ITV: Feature-length documentary looking at Covid-19 across the world, from the outbreak and China (and potential cover-up) to how different governments have handled the crisis.

First Dates, 10pm, Channel 4: The romantic. Frequently hilarious and occasionally excruciating show, following people on their first (blind) dates together returns, with a 69-year-old former roadie looking for love after a brush with mortality.

Wednesday 20th January

The Truth About Improving Your Mental Health, 9pm, BBC One: Clinical psychologist Prof Tanya Byron and former England footballer Alex Scott (who herself has suffered from depression) investigate different ways we can all look after our mental health in these trying times.

Targeted: The Truth About Disability Hate Crime, 9pm, BBC Two: It seems beyond comprehension that there are people out there sufficiently twisted to attack people because of their disability, but that’s exactly what emerges from Richard Butchins’ sobering film.

The Bay, 9pm, ITV: Second series of the drama about sleuthing in Morecambe, about which I can tell you nothing, as I didn’t see the first series. However, I can state with confidence that it stars Morven Christie and Joe Absolom, because it says so on my computer screen.

Thursday 21st January

Inside Culture with Mary Beard 1/6, 7pm, BBC Two: The classicist returns with her cultural review show. Tonight, to mark the changing presidential regime (woo hoo) Beard talks to Armando Iannucci about how satirists go about adjusting to a change in regime.

The Chasers Road Trip: Trains, Brains and Automobiles 1/3, 9pm, ITV: The cult of the Chaser is growing, as ITV continues to milk its successful quiz show for all its worth. In this series, Chasers Mark Labbett, Anne Hegerty and Shaun Wallace travel the world, looking into the cognitive abilities of animals and examining the world of Artificial Intelligence.

Back 1/6, 10pm, Channel 4: Almost four years after its excellent debut series, the darkly comic sitcom about two feuding foster brothers returns for a second season. David Mitchell and Robert Webb star.

Friday 22nd January

It’s a Sin 1/5, 9pm, Channel 4: Russell T Davies is one of the best writers working in TV today, so his new series, about a group of gay men in the 1980s during the AIDS crisis, promises to be humane, funny and moving.

The Investigation 1/6, 9pm, BBC Two: This new series, starting with a double bill tonight, is based on the bizarre true story of the murder of journalist Kim Wall by Danish entrepreneur and businessman Peter Madsen on his home-made submarine.

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