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Sean Bean and Nicola Walker’s Marriage makes me feel like part of a Hollywood power couple

A drama that shows in excruciating detail the stultifying reality of a lifelong marriage. Yet it’s the details in this story that make it so mesmerising, writes Lucy Sweet.

I’ve been married for 25 years now, and it’s the little things that grate, isn’t it? (And when I say grate, I mean hacking your skin off with a blunt vegetable peeler.) I’ll admit, I’m not the world’s most patient wife. I’m not above screaming at him to open the passenger car door lock, or flying into a rage when he forgets his keys for the millionth time. And on days when hormones are raging, I’m prone to jauntily – and not so jauntily – telling him to f-off for a variety of reasons, up to and including existing.  

When we’re not bickering in the car park of the East Kilbride Nike Outlet in the rain, we’re also capable of having some scintillating text exchanges like “the thermostat needs a new battery”.  

At night, of course, our exchanges become even more X-rated – featuring such sweet nothings as “Do you want a cup of tea?” and “I’m going to bed now to do the Codeword”. And then there are the habits. I don’t close cereal packets properly and leave tea towels on the worktop, and he has an infuriating habit of going to the supermarket and buying GIANT cabbages that go off on the same day. Every moment is a rollercoaster, let me tell ya.  

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But compared to the characters in Marriage, we are a razzle dazzle Hollywood power duo, laughing and joking and high kicking our way through life in fishnets and sequinned tuxedos. Sean Bean and Nicola Walker are Ian and Emma, a middle-aged couple who have been married for 27 years. They argue viciously about baked potatoes and live in an awkward perma-silence so full of withheld words that you want to slam their heads in the dishwasher.  

As we watch them in seemingly real, mundane time (“The ants are back”, “I can’t believe they charged 30p for ketchup”, “I was thinking of getting some of that revitalising shower gel”) the big picture is slowly and cleverly revealed. Although outwardly they’re more boring than a half-opened packet of Co-op Bran Flakes, their marriage contains multitudes: unspoken grief over a lost child, inappropriate crushes on co-workers, not to mention the struggles of getting older and the burden of responsibility that comes with it – from a difficult dad (James Bolam) to a daughter who is struggling with a controlling boyfriend.  

Marriage is on BBCiPlayer now

The perceptive script by Stefan Golaszewski shows their individual vulnerabilities and insecurities in excruciating relief. Emma’s hideous boss compliments her on her new red jacket and, buoyed by that single molecule of attention, she wears it all the time like a sad, haunted Butlins rep. Sean Bean plays Ian like he’s a garden implement left in the rain, bereft and semi-retired, lingering too long at the leisure centre and making fruitless conversation with a girl over half his age. 

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Overall, like the institution itself, Marriage is a bit of a slog, but it’s worth it. I think. A couple of things stretch the boundaries of credulity. They snog passionately on the street (AS IF!) and occasionally start laughing at what each other says in the middle of an argument, an act punishable by death in my marriage. And I would like to file for divorce from the music, a deranged theatrical acapella that sounds like the most sparsely attended night at the Edinburgh Fringe.  

But Marriage is mesmerising drama, and fearless enough to show what nobody else sees in a relationship, like the potential for loneliness and those extremely private, ferocious conversations that involve slagging off everyone else in the world. And although Ian and Emma aren’t the best advert for a long-term relationship, you end up rooting for them regardless. Mind you, I haven’t finished watching the series and nobody has bought a giant cabbage yet. Maybe that’s what will finally tip them over the edge.  

Lucy Sweet is a freelance journalist

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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