Television: After the London bombings, a mother’s grief puts viewers through the ringer

Review: ‘A Song for Jenny’, ‘Fake or Fortune’, ‘Coronation Street’

Emily Watson in A Song for Jenny: her performance is intense and unaffected, a vanity-free snot-crying tour de force

 

The endless cups of tea, the claustrophobia of family sitting rooms, the quiet waiting punctuated by someone saying the wrong thing: all the recognisable stages of grief in the immediate aftermath of a sudden death are perfectly captured in A Song for Jenny (BBC One, Sunday). Except that Jenny’s death is also very public: she was among those murdered in the London bombings 10 years ago.

A Song for Jenny, written by Frank McGuinness, is a sort of memento mori not just for Jenny Nicholson, the 24-year-old killed in the tube on her way to work, but also for the 51 other victims and for a London rocked by the terrorist attacks.

Two forces propel the drama through its 80 minutes: the impact of the relatively recent deadly event, whose randomness carries its own universal terror; and the powerful, raw performance by Emily Watson as Jenny’s mum, Julie. The script is based on Julie Nicholson’s memoir detailing her enduring grief and her loss of faith – she was a vicar. A Song for Jenny is really all about Jenny’s mum. That, in many ways, is to its detriment as a television drama.

We follow Julie from the first news bulletins through a harrowing scene in a mortuary, where she holds her daughter’s hand and anoints her while a policewoman sobs quietly in the background, and on to the funeral.

It’s the ordinariness of the repetitive family scenes that contrast with the extraordinary world they have been thrust into. We see not bombs or blood but the emotional fallout of the terrorist attack. But focusing so fully on the mother edges everybody else out; the other key characters in Jenny’s life barely register.

This is most obvious with her father, played by Steven Mackintosh, an actor whose great strength is playing weak men. Here he is given little to do. The father’s absence at key moments – in the mortuary, when Julie visits the tube station to see the scene of her daughter’s death, in police interviews – stretches credibility. Was he really not there?

Watson’s performance is intense and unaffected, a vanity-free snot-crying tour de force. But the dialogue tends to be stilted, so that it sounds more like an exposition-heavy stage play than a naturalistic TV drama. That has the effect of keeping us removed from the emotion.

“We’ve lost a sister. We don’t want to lose you and dad too,” says the two-dimensional character of the son. It’s not something a teenage boy is likely to say, but it drops the idea into the script that Jenny’s death could break up his parents.

The dramatic focus is a mother losing a child, but Julie doesn’t “mother” her two living children in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, and the script has her almost ignore them.

But then the funeral scene dissolves to a blinding white screen. There’s a photo of the real Jenny looking young, happy and gorgeous, and it becomes hard to look back at the drama with a cold critical eye.

If Fiona Bruce weren’t so associated with the BBC’s twee Antiques Roadshow, on which she gamely pretends to be interested in some granny’s lusterware or Indian knick-knack, Fake or Fortune (BBC One, Sunday), which Bruce also presents, might have more credible appeal.

Then there’s the name: it’s a bit downmarket, a bit too Cash in the Attic, too close to Homes Under the Hammer. Still, once you’re over all that Fake or Fortune offers a fascinating insight into the global art market and its big-bucks auction rooms.

The task is to prove that someone’s painting is genuine. The series returns this week for its second run; last time it discovered new works by Constable and Gainsborough and proved that a Chagall was a fake – and that the Chagall foundation, which controls the artist’s estate, had the power to insist it be destroyed. Not great news for its owner, who had paid £100,000 for it.

In this first episode Bruce and her copresenter, the art expert Philip Mould – he sounds reassuringly art-market plummy – are presented with three small paintings believed by their owner, Stephen Ames, to be by LS Lowry, he of matchstalk men and matchstalk cats and dogs. Ames’s father, a self-made northerner, bought them in the 1970s. But there’s no paperwork to back them up, and for Ames it seems a point of pride rather than money – £200,000 if genuine, £20 if fake – that they be proved real: he doesn’t want to believe his late father could have been duped.

That’s when the meticulous sleuthing begins. It includes an interview with a nonchalant forger of Lowry, who is probably the most-faked British artist because his style is so easy to copy. There’s a tour of the Tate Gallery’s vast vaults, several expert opinions, and various CSI-worthy scientific tests. True, there is no Chagall-type shocker in this episode, but Fake or Fortune is an easy-on-the-eye art-market primer.

 

Farewell, Deer-dree

When there’s a real death to deal with, as opposed to a cast-clearing fire or train crash, Coronation Street (UTV Ireland, Wednesday), the brassiest of soaps, does quietly moving exits. And Deirdre’s has been coming since January, when Anne Kirkbride, who played one of British TV soaps’ best-known characters, passed away.

It was smart to leave months between the real event and the one that has to happen. A key character like Deirdre, she of the giant specs, ill-advised bubble perms and ever-straining neck, couldn’t disappear the way so many soap characters do. There was no time to give her soap’s highest prize: a lingering illness and death around Christmas.

News of her death was a masterclass in understatement, a return to old-school Corrie dialogue, balancing earthy humour and tear-inducing pathos, with most of the cobbles’ characters paying tribute. All are awaiting Deirdre’s return – before we knew her, did we ever know that Deer-dree could be pronounced that way? – for a surprise 60th-birthday party.

Then Bev arrives with the news that Deirdre has died from an aneurysm – “She was sat in a patio chair. I thought she was asleep”. She hands Ken Deirdre’s trademark glasses, and he crumples with a grief that looks searing and real.

Anne Kirkbride spent 42 years in a top-rated TV soap: not too many actors will reach that milestone.

Ones to Watch: Political pratfalls and the art of hearing

The fourth season of Veep, Armando Iannucci’s razor-sharp, hilariously politically incorrect HBO comedy (Sky Atlantic, Wednesday), kicks off with the barely competent Selina (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, right) about to make her inaugural speech to Congress.

Listen to the astonishing sounds of medical miracles in The Sound Barrier (RTÉ One, Tuesday). This documentary, made over nine months, follows a number of deaf people as they receive cochlear implants from the pioneering surgeon Dr Laura Viani.

tvreview@irishtimes.com

 

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