This Life will eat itself

The sequel to the trendsetting Nineties series was more self-regarding 'reality TV' than real-world drama.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

This Life was a pretty good BBC drama about a group of young lawyers living in London in the 1990s. It gained some notoriety for its frank/gratuitous depiction of sex, swearing and drug-taking, but was more generally interesting because it drew attention to young people’s uncertainty about what to expect from life, careers, and especially relationships.

It is salutary to remember that this was also the rationale for some of the early experiments in reality TV, such as The Real World and The Living Soap earlier in the 1990s, before the formats took over and all pretence at representing real life was abandoned. This Life + 10 (shown on BBC2 last night) was a one-off film revisiting the characters from the series. In That Life, a short documentary following the film, its writer and the creator of the original series, Amy Jenkins, described This Life + 10 as a window on the lives of the characters 10 years on, rather than an attempt to offer any kind of resolution or comment. There was also a hefty nod to reality TV, however, as the film was organised around a documentary bringing the housemates together in a mansion in the country, each equipped with a camera to make a video diary.

Of the five original housemates, only one is still a lawyer. Egg, who dropped out of the law early in the original series to become a novelist, but really just lazed around before getting a job as a cook, has against all the odds actually finished and had his book published to acclaim. Unsurprisingly, it is a thinly disguised account of his life in the house: hence, the documentary and the reunion. Warren, who dropped out of the law towards the end of the series having been offered little support after being arrested while cottaging, is as neurotic as ever and is trying to become a life coach.

Of the three who stayed in the law for the duration of the series, Milly has since dropped out to become a full-time mother (Egg is the father, despite having found out about Milly’s affair with her boss at the dramatic denouement of the series). And Miles is now a seemingly mega-rich hotels entrepreneur living in the aforementioned mansion with his young Vietnamese bride. That leaves Anna, now a very successful barrister, but desperate for a baby.

In fact, the most striking thing about the catch-up film was its old-fashioned sexual politics. Anna and Milly represent opposite poles of the career vs baby dilemma. This came to a head over dinner, when Milly accused Anna of thinking she was just a housewife (‘She’s not a housewife, she’s a supermum,’ Egg interjected helpfully), Anna accused Milly of losing her identity, and Milly stormed out. They later reconciled, each admitting that she wasn’t entirely happy. That’s that sorted, then. There was also the revelation that Miles’ young wife is quite feisty. As plot and character development go, it was pretty weak. I suppose a reputation for having your finger on the pulse of changing social mores is a lot to live up to.

The only remotely sympathetic character was the documentary filmmaker Clare, who at least seemed dedicated to her chosen craft; there was a minor subplot concerning her insistence on not interfering with her subjects. Having said that, this experience may have put her off for life. ‘Can I just say’, she announced at the end of the film, ‘that making documentaries about fucked-up metrosexuals is not how I wanted to spend my life?’

That was after Egg sabotaged the documentary by throwing Clare’s tapes in the pond, and announced that he hadn’t written a word of his second book and would give up trying, thus confirming that he intends to follow his true vocation as a pathetic loser. Milly was delighted. Meanwhile, Anna slept with Miles (his wife having left on discovering he was actually bankrupt), but asked Warren to father her child. Miles had his mansion repossessed and went off to Timbuktu to find himself, while Warren was just happy that everyone likes him after all.

In the documentary about the drama about a documentary about the people from the original drama, much was made of the primitive camera techniques in said original drama. Indeed, one of the strengths of This Life was that it felt like someone was simply pointing a camera at the characters and letting them get on with their lives. The important thing was that they had lives. And jobs. And contact with people outside the house. With these elements largely missing, This Life + 10 was a pale shadow of the original series, and That Life was indistinguishable from any other showbiz doclet, with actors reminiscing about their roles and contemplating yet another reunion. The BBC would do better taking a risk on a new drama that might just tell us more about the real world than about the process of making television.

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