Television

The chief characteristic so far has been nervousness: Chivalry reviewed

23 April 2022

9:00 AM

23 April 2022

9:00 AM

Chivalry

Channel 4

Life After Life

BBC2

Chivalry – written by and starring Sarah Solemani and Steve Coogan – is a comedy drama about post-#MeToo Hollywood life. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that the show’s chief characteristic so far has been nervousness. Somewhere inside it, you feel, lurks an impulse to really let rip. But if so, Thursday’s first two episodes successfully resisted it. Now and again, we did get some jokes that might just frighten the admittedly neurotic horses of the new Moral Majority. The overall effect, though, was of a game of How Far Can You Go? in which the contestants’ answer was a firm ‘not very’.

Still, even this level of unorthodoxy seemed unlikely when the programme began. Coogan plays Cameron O’Neill, a Hollywood producer first seen beside a swimming pool asking a pair of bikini-clad lovelies if they might be interested in a trip to the Caribbean. Sadly, the conversation was interrupted by the arrival of Bobby Sohrabi (Solemani), a British director – and wearer of T-shirts saying ‘Women Unite’ – brought in by the studio to reshoot parts of his latest film along more acceptable lines.

The set-up became broader still when the pair had a meeting with the original director, who just had time to rather hammily confirm his sexist-dinosaur credentials before he conveniently died, leaving the two principals to slug it out between themselves. And for a while,Chivalry proceeded from there pretty much as you’d expect, with Cameron (boo!) rolling his eyes at Bobby’s censoriousness and Bobby (hurray!) rolling hers at Cameron’s tragic tendency to fancy attractive young women.


Fortunately, the programme did perk up when other characters were added to the mix, some even bringing with them welcome glimmers of complexity. There is, for example, Jean (Wanda Sykes), a studio executive who as a black woman is exempt from the rules that apply to Cameron. (‘You can say anything you like,’ he complained to her at one stage. ‘I know – isn’t it hilarious?’ she replied.) Before long, Bobby also brought in her old friend Tatiana (Aisling Bea), a former chiropractor who’d used lockdown to retrain as that now-mandatory feature of Hollywood filmmaking: an intimacy supervisor. ‘I’m just here to make everyone feel comfortable,’ Tatiana declared/recited – the trouble being that her platitudes got in the way of such other mandatory features of filmmaking as actually making a film. Equally annoying for Bobby was the male stand-in for the new, less objectifying sex scenes. ‘I’m just super-aware that I want to be respectful to women,’ he declared/recited – the trouble being that his character was a Nazi having sex with a woman in occupied France.

And yet, even at these moments of comparative daringness, the programme’s nervousness made itself felt, largely in the form of little backtracking sermons from Bobby about how toxic you-know-what had made such things necessary. In other words, the ‘debate’ promised in Chivalry’s advance publicity takes place within strictly approved parameters – and the sense remains that this is a show whose central approach to its own subject is to tiptoe carefully around it.

For all its brilliance, Kate Atkinson’s 2013 novel Life After Life has never seemed an obvious candidate for a screen adaptation, let alone a faithful one. Nonetheless, BBC2’s new four-part drama takes a fairly creditable stab at it.

The main character is Ursula Todd who, unusually for a literary protagonist, dies as a newborn baby. Happily, she’s then born again on the same day in 1910 and this time survives – at least until she’s five, when she drowns at the seaside. And with that, she’s born again in 1910 and makes it through her seaside scare, before falling to her death from her bedroom window a few years later. Gradually, the memories of her previous existences allow her to avoid the dangers that ended each of them, although only with other lethal dangers taking their place.

In lesser hands, this would have been a novel too dominated by its own high-concept premise: that all of us could have lived many different lives of many different lengths. In fact, what made it such a great read was that, once the concept was in place, Atkinson concentrated her considerable firepower on making every one of the lives entirely vivid.

And, wisely enough, this is what the TV version does too, with the first episode serving up a thoroughly imagined portrait of a comfortable middle-class family before the first world war – and of the war’s devastating impact. Inevitably, there’s a certain lack of jeopardy involved when the death of the protagonist is never terminal. At the same time, however, showing us how fragile and provisional everything is not only proves a highly affecting reminder of the miraculousness of being here at all. It also imbues even the most everyday events with a kind of mythic significance.

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