Bobbi (Sasha Lane) and Frances (Alison Oliver) in BBC3’s new adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Conversation With Friends. Image: BBC/Element Pictures/Enda Bowe
This week’s round up of the best new television features two hotly anticipated literary adaptations. Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends and Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent could scarcely be more different books. But both make for slow, beguiling, intriguing television.
There’s also a sensitively filmed dramatisation of the endemic abuse within youth football based on former footballer Andy Woodward’s shocking story – as told in the BBC’s Floodlights.
Two documentaries take on mental health and addiction. Joe Wicks and Darren McGarvey are two important voices in this vital discussion, and both mine their personal histories for new shows for the BBC.
Conversations With Friends – BBC3 / iPlayer from Sunday
Following the incredible success of Normal People – propelled by lockdown’s captive audience and the chemistry between stars Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones – the debut novel from Sally Rooney now gets the long-form adaptation treatment.
This ten-part coming-of-age drama is, once again, perfectly cast – with newcomer Alison Oliver outstanding as smart and watchful Frances while Sasha Lane (so great in The Miseducation of Cameron Post) captures Bobbi’s bravado beautifully.
They play best friends, poetry collaborators and former lovers drawn into the world of an older married couple – charismatic renowned writer Melissa (Girls star Jemima Kirke) and her husband Nick (The Favourite’s Joe Alwyn), an actor whose quiet demeanour masks hidden shallows.
What follows, as in the novel, is a love quadrangle in intimate close-up, with every lingering glance full of meaning. Writer Alice Birch and director Lenny Abrahamson are on board once again, and if the story and its central relationships lack some of the fire and spark of Normal People – and can veer towards being too cool and detached at times – as the series progresses, the languid tone and complex relationships woven through the story become increasingly beguiling.
Joe Wicks: Facing My Childhood – BBC2, Monday
Joe Wicks was a lockdown hero, with millions of us taking his PE With Joe workouts as the pandemic kept so many housebound. But so many of the letters he receives from fans are about mental, rather than physical health. For a new and personal documentary, Wicks revisits his own history – finding out more about his mum’s OCD, eating disorders and anxiety and the heroin addiction and depression that saw his dad in and out of rehab throughout his childhood.
“It was just a lot of chaos,” he says, of his childhood as he visits a UK charity dedicated to working with the children of parents with mental illness, returns to his old school where he discovers there are twice as many vulnerable children this year as previously and talks candidly with his parents.
“Exercise wasn’t just about the body for me – it was about the mind,” he says. “It was about escaping from the fear and feelings and anxiety and whatever was going on at home.” Another important intervention from Joe Wicks.
Floodlights – BBC2, Tuesday
A powerful, upsetting feature-length drama telling the story of former professional footballer Andy Woodward, who spoke publicly in 2016 about the sexual abuse he had been subjected to by youth coach Barry Bennell.
Only in the wake of Woodward’s bravery, sharing his story in The Guardian newspaper, did the scale of abuse within youth football come to light, with thousands of victims coming forward and hundreds of suspected abusers identified.
All Andy Woodward wanted was to be a footballer. Like so many others, young Andy’s bedroom walls were plastered with posters of his favourite players. And he was good, too. Quiet, sensitive, skilled. Scenes of Bennell grooming this talented, innocent young boy, exerting power over him with the promise of a glittering future as a professional footballer even as he took away his childhood are deeply disturbing. Young Max Fletcher is heartbreakingly good as young Woodward, while Gerard Kearns plays the older Woodward as wary, watchful, damaged with equal skill.
Floodlights is hard to watch. But the story is handled sensitively by writer Matt Greenhalgh (Control).
We see Woodward as a young boy, as a professional footballer with Bury struggling with his secret torment as manager Neil Warnock reads the riot act, in the aftermath of a career cut short because of the impact of the abuse on his mental health, and finally revealing his story to journalist Daniel Taylor.
Viewers are left in no doubt about the devastating lasting impact of Bennell’s abuse on Woodward, and by extension, the devastation inflicted on hundreds of others. An important story, sensitively told.
The Essex Serpent – Apple TV
A gothic tale with a star-studded cast. The Essex Serpent is a big budget adaptation of Sarah Perry’s stunning novel, led by superstars Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston, with great support from featuring Frank Dillane, Clemence Poesy and Hayley Squires.
Cora Seaborne (Danes) is newly widowed, free after years trapped in an abusive marriage, and in search of adventure. She arrives in Aldwater, Essex with her maid (Squires), to research the mysterious serpent said to live in the waters – the South East’s answer to the Loch Ness Monster.
There, she finds disbelieving local rector (Hiddleston) – surely the hottest TV priest since Andrew Scott in Fleabag – as superstition and religion duel with science and duty and honour wrangle with passion. A tangled web of love and intrigue emerges, as the mystery of the water remains tantalisingly out of reach.
This is high-class drama – dark, brooding, mysterious. But be warned, the six-part series takes some time to get going.
Darren McGarvey’s Addictions – iPlayer
This important series has already started on BBC Scotland, but should be picked up across the country via iPlayer. Darren McGarvey is a vital working class voice, whose Orwell Prize-winning book ‘Poverty Safari: Understanding The Anger of Britain’s Underclass’, published in 2017, showed the very real impact growing up poor can have on families.
For a new documentary series, McGarvey looks at addiction. It’s another subject close to his heart. Across three episodes, he looks at the causes, the science and the human cost of addiction. The opening episode looks at alcohol – with McGarvey particularly keen to understand his home country’s relationship with drink – before an episode on drugs and another tackling food, gambling and sex addictions.
“Addiction is one of the biggest issues that we face,” says McGarvey. “And given my level of experience, personally and also in the community, I recognise I’m in a position to shine a light on it in a way that hasn’t been done yet.”
McGarvey, as ever, brings insight and understanding – and offers a lens on society we rarely see on mainstream television.