That Was This Life That Was

The This Life (BBC2, 1996-97) cast - Egg, Kira, Miles, Milly, Anna and Warren,

Another piece originally published on my previous website, and one that has a less straightforward history than you might think. When the first series of This Life originally went out, I was coming towards the end of my final term of University and was hooked by the exploits of Anna and company straight away. I’m not sure I was actually intentionally watching the first episode and had probably just left the television – the same portable that later exploded shortly after an episode of jaaaaam, but that’s another story – on after watching a repeat of the pilot of The X Files, in one of my many attempts to ‘get’ the adventures of Mulder and Scully. Their battles with Ian Drainpipes or whatever he was called never quite grabbed me in the same way that I found myself grabbed by This Life; a couple of minutes in I distinctly recall thinking that I’d never seen anything like it before and it became one of many programmes around that time that I went around trying to demand that people I knew watched, most of whom paid about as much attention to me as they had over Fist Of Fun and The Buddha Of Suburbia, though in fairness many of them did latch on to the repeats six months later.

Those repeats were of course a lead-in to the second series of This Life, by which time I was briefly working in the Legal Sector; this should of course have given the series even greater resonance with me but if I’m honest I remember feeling at the time that they’d ramped up the melodrama a little too much and it lacked the sparky mundanity of the first run, although I still enjoyed it immensely. By now of course millions more viewers had joined the party at Benjamin Street, and I can recall weeks where there seemed to be precious few other topics of conversation than This Life. Despite widespread astonishment that it was cancelled immediately after Milly smacked Rachel in the face, in retrospect it was better that it went out on a high, especially given that the original plan was for it to return in the Autumn with a brand new cast; as you can read both here and here, what would to all intents and purposes have been a new series celebrating degeneracy and a lack of respect would have had its work cut out for it in late 1997. This Life was arguably the high watermark of a time when late-night BBC2 actually paid some attention to what viewers might actually have wanted to watch and could seemingly do little wrong, and although widely feted at the time, it’s never really found its way onto those boring lists of boringly celebrated boringly over-analysed television shows that boring people act as though nothing of any worth was ever made prior to. It was a great show that the audience really enjoyed and that was all it ever needed to be, really.

Many years later, I found the entire two series on DVD in a charity shop for a pound, and was having an expensive coffee and feeling very pleased with myself when suddenly my phone started buzzing across the table in a way that I thought only happened in movies. It wasn’t pleasant news and the ensuing rewatch of This Life became very important to me at a difficult and confusing time. Even so, I’ve always had mixed feelings about this piece, mainly on account of that association, and in fact made excuses to myself to omit it from Can’t Help Thinking About Me for that very reason. However, it just kept on mysteriously getting large amounts of hits from nowhere every couple of months so I must have done something right. Re-reading now as I embark on yet another This Life rewatch, I’ve decided that I’m quite fond of it after all and hence you’re seeing it again now.

In March 1996, a bunch of law graduates moved into a shared house in Southwark. Over the next two years, BBC2’s rare excursion into credible and likeable youth drama This Life kept us all hooked (well, all of us except snorting drama-ier-than-thou bores) with a whirlwind of casual sex, criminal behaviour, industrial-strength quantities of cocaine and that sodding Sneaker Pimps song again and again and again and again and again, all of it brilliantly undramatically underplayed by a talented cast of relatable characters who couldn’t really give a toss one way or the other, frankly, and still managed to get up for work in the morning. Then BBC2 opted to pull the plug and end the series on a high, and it was never seen again. No it wasn’t. Shut up.

Although few could claim it was really a realistic depiction of their own lives – let’s face it, the majority of the target audience could probably have found more to identify with in The Adam & Joe Show – This Life was notable for treating ‘vices’ as low-key everyday pursuits, for its accurate evocation of the effects of the switch from three years of dossing around to a high-powered work environment, and for talking to rather than down at the sort of viewers it sought to attract. And surely pretty much everyone had a housemate who just wouldn’t sod off from the front room when they’d brought someone back and were hoping for a bit of privacy. But how well does it really stand up now? Well, Ms. Forbes, if you will present your findings to the jury…

This Life Was Better Than Our Friends In The North

The cast of Our Friends In The North,

Well, what better way to start a look back at an edgy and controversial drama series than by being edgy and controversial? To this day, mentioning This Life within the earshot of self-designated ‘cultured’ individuals will generate a slowly building chorus of “aaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhh, but Our Friends In The North, do you not see? aaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhh!”, which refuses to abate until you throw in the towel and pretend to concede that the adventures of Daniel Craig and some ropey wigs was a televisual landmark of such importance and significance that it should eclipse all mention ever of another show that had the audacity to be on around the same time and have a similarly young cast. Whether or not this extends to other programmes that were also on around the same time, and that references to The Girlie Show, Crapston Villas and that thing where Martin Clunes and Neil Morrissey were New Romantics or something must be similarly shouted down, has sadly not been clarified. Well, enough of that nonsense. Our Friends In The North may have had a heavyweight cast and a staggeringly good decade-straddling script that skilfully and effectively tackled every major sociocultural issue in British life from the sixties to the rise of New Labour, but This Life was, plainly and simply, more fun and had better jokes and better music. No not aaaaaaaahhh!

Put Some Bloody Clothes On! 

Kelly from This Life (BBC2, 1996-97).

Part of the aforementioned ‘fun’ of This Life was in the regular characters’ alarmingly relaxed attitude to nudity, and even when they weren’t actually having sex they could be constantly seen walking in on each other getting changed, or just generally wandering about the house in the absence of key items of clothing. Quite surprisingly and progressively for the time, the overwhelming majority of said nudity was male, too. But how times change, and while time was when Kira flashing her bra at a departing Moore Spencer Wright head honcho would have fulfilled your unexpected erotic thrill quota for an entire week, nowadays there’s so much digital nakedness available on tap that it all just looks a bit unnecessary. As nice as Anna’s arse may be, it is possible to get too much of a good thing and by the end of the series you’re left wondering if Daniela Nardini had to be treated for the effects of exposure. Plus we also had to put up with the decidedly less visually palatable likes of Mr. O’Donnell and Egg’s dad getting in on the act and out of their clothes, which nobody either wanted or needed. No matter how many furious letters to Points Of View may have been inspired by Milly’s apparent inability to remember the concept of ‘pants’ at the time, sometimes what seemed shocking way back when just looks boring now.

Anna And Miles Are More Likeable Than Milly And Egg

Miles, Anna, Warren, Milly and Egg from This Life (BBC2, 1996-97).

Rewatching This Life, you get the distinct impression that you’re supposed to find the stable, reserved, relatively career-focused couple more admirable and aspirational than the non-couple made up of an arrogant prejudiced public schoolboy with no money worries and the self-destructive sexually voracious Caledonian bruiser. On face value this is probably largely true, except for the fact that Miles and Anna freely accept that they are the cause of their own problems, are never afraid to charge headlong into difficult situations, and despite their expletive-fuelled cynicism generally have a more positive outlook on the world. Whereas Milly and Egg – both of whom, in a clever and subtle scripting touch, are going by handles that purposefully distract from their birth names (Djamila and Edgar, in case you were wondering) – are underneath it all basically just a paranoid moaner and an aimless drifter who hide their heads in the sand, allow seething resentment to build up unchecked, and continually mislead each other about even the most minor and trivial thing, and yet still manage to blame everyone else in the world for everything that ever happens to them. It’s no wonder poor old Warren spent so much time in that therapist’s office.

The Minor Characters Were All More Likeable Still

Ferdy and Kira from This Life (BBC2, 1996-97).

Remarkably for a show that already boasted a fairly large regular ensemble cast, This Life featured an even larger assortment of friends, colleagues and enemies (oh and ‘Quasi’) who hovered on the periphery of the various house dramas and indeed frequently on the periphery of the house itself. Jo, Kira, Ferdy, Kelly, Lenny, Nikki, the ever-mysterious Graham, Miles and Anna’s downright odd boss Hooperman, various brothers and sisters and parents and even the odd ‘dealer’ all wandered in and out of various storylines without ever losing their sense of positivity or their somewhat more relaxed and less self-absorbed grip on reality. For some viewers, their assorted comic mishaps with careers, relationships and, erm, finding somewhere to get a sandwich were even more enjoyable than the main action and it’s little surprise that they are in some cases remembered every bit as fondly as – if not more than – the main five. Well, apart from Dale. Oh, and while we’re on the subject…

Was Rachel Really All That Bad?

Rachel and Miles from This Life This Life (BBC2, 1996-97).

Captain Black sided with The Mysterons after Earth had blown up their home city for no good reason. Mike Teavee had the temerity to enjoy the output of a medium Roald Dahl was a bit sniffy about. Raggerty’s sole crime was wishing Rupert Bear would go away. And then there’s Rachel from This Life, a divisive and suspiciously android-like individual who continued to inadvertently pour oil on troubled waters until Milly smacked her in the face in the last episode. But was this really warranted? Was any of it even her fault? Well, although there’s no denying she was well and truly locked in a six-of-one passive-aggressive war of workplace attrition with Milly, wasn’t afraid to use promises of never-actually-delivered sex to get what she wanted, and was as ambitious and opportunistic as they come, it’s also true to say that she was helpful and supportive to those that bothered to reach out to her (notably Warren), seemed genuinely hurt when Milly launched into the ‘I don’t like you’ rant, made more than enough genuine-seeming overtures to her office enemy, and occasionally dropped worrying hints of dark goings on in her family home. There’s even a case for claiming that her ‘telling’ Egg about Milly’s affair was vague enough to have been a ‘you’ll lose her if you’re not careful’ pep talk gone wrong, and that perhaps her desperate cry of “I didn’t tell him!” wasn’t quite so much of a load of Not-Talkin’-‘Bout-Shaft-style baloney after all. The jury’s still out, really, although they’ve already returned their verdict on one particular pillock…

O’Donnell Is A Jerk

O'Donnell from This Life (BBC2, 1996-97).

“Never trust a hippy”, mused Egg of the gang’s law firm mentor Mr. O’Donnell, occasioning an eye-roll from Milly who was presumably fed up of his hero worship of John Lydon and thought that Tracy Chapman and Michelle Shocked said it all much better and without swearing at that nice Bill Grundy either. But said hippy’s untrustworthiness went way beyond his encouraging Milly to become a very different kind of ‘legal partner’, from his shabby attempt at winning back favour after firing Warren by sending a crate of booze to his leaving party, to his gleeful favourite-playing indulgence in the volley of glares between Milly and Rachel, to his general treatment of Kira and Kelly as more or less on a par with a couple of footprint-embossed McDonald’s cartons that had blown in to the office on a muggy day, all of it cunningly framed behind a Tony Blair-esque calm voice, proclamations of fairness and friendliness, and waffly talk of positivity and ‘how we move forward from here’ and blah and bleh and yawn yawn yawn. Well, no, it doesn’t work on the audience mate – O’Donnell is a solid-state jerk through and through. If Moore Spencer Wright were so vocally concerned about their reputation that they dismissed Warren for being gay in a built-up area and gave Kelly a written warning for opting to urinate in the lavatory rather than on the floor of reception, would they really have wanted this tosspot conman on their board of partners?

Put A Tim From The Office In It

Martin Freeman in This Life (BBC2, 1996-97).

One frequently overlooked aspect of This Life is the presence of a then-unknown Martin Freeman as shifty, annoying Ocean Colour Scene lookalike Stuart. His most memorable moment comes when, having successfully half-inched a couple of House Tenners when nobody was looking, he pauses to take a celebratory swig from an open can of lager. Little does he realise that Egg had earlier relieved himself into it (presumably deploying near-supernatural levels of directional accuracy), occasioning Mr. Freeman to pull a ‘shocked’ face and spit it out exaggeratedly in glorious shakycam stutter-o-vision. There are those who would suggest that this face has put in a considerable number of appearances across his career, from Watson to Arthur Dent to Bilbo Baggins to That Bloke In Meet The Robinsons to, well, Tim From The Office himself. We of course could not possibly comment. But as for certain other employees of TV’s Hilarious Wernham Hogg…

What Did Ricky Gervais Do All Day?

The This Life (BBC2, 1996-97) soundtrack CD.

One aspect of This Life that nobody ever gets an opportunity to overlook is that Ricky Gervais took time out from going to see The Spin Doctors at the Civic Centre to act as the show’s official ‘Music Consultant’. This technically involved working out what sort of music the characters’ real-life counterparts would have listened to, and indeed which scenes and circumstances might have been best underscored by which songs. What this actually translated to was picking one or two artists per character and relentlessly cueing their best known numbers in again and again and again, giving the strange illusion that the house existed in a sort of weird alternative universe where nobody had ever made or received a compilation tape. In fairness sometimes this works, and every so often you get a welcome reminder of terrific forgotten songs from the era like Anywhere by Dubstar, while having Kira as a Kenickie fan was certainly a neat touch. On the other hand, though, you get the fact that Miles likes ‘jazz’ – i.e. he mentioned John Coltrane once – denoted by Corduroy’s Out Of Here being played in literally track by track over the course of the series. Must have taken hours of ‘consulting’, that one.

How Long Had Warren Actually Been Travelling For?

Warren in the final scene from This Life.

Partway in to the second series, his dreams of a high-flying legal career having been temporarily derailed, Warren takes off for a spot of global sightseeing with the aid of a pair of ruby slipper-esque DMs from his housemates. Australia and America both seem to be on the itinerary, though he still manages to get back in time for the very last scene, showing up to witness Milly and Rachel clawing at each other’s faces while sporting a vague hint of a beard and a Hawaiian shirt that indicates he’s beamed in directly from whichever beach he’d ended up on without having time to change. However, even allowing for possible onscreen skipping over of unseen events, it can only be at the outside three weeks between his departure and the wedding, suggesting that his plans might not quite have been so grand after all. Then again, how would Miles and Francesca’s courtship and wedding have fitted into that short a timeframe? Do any of the things that happen actually add up in any logical way at all? Can I go back to trying to work out what happened in wiped Doctor Who episodes please? No? Oh alright then. There’s just one last thing to say…

This Life + 10 Did Not Happen

Milly punches Rachel in This Life.

BBC2’s decision to end This Life on a high and with viewers wanting more was a shrewd and successful one, as it left the show’s reputation intact and untarnished. We can be glad, then, that nobody ever saw fit to mount a revival nobody asked for which undid all of the good character work of the original, indulged in unfunny ‘ha ha ha we’re all comfortable thirtysomethings just like you!!’ non-humour, made absolutely no mention of what became of Jo, Kira, Kelly, Rachel or even a piss-spluttering Martin Freeman, and generally achieved such a low standard of drama and entertainment that it made A Very Polish PracticeFurther Up Pompeii! and Doomwatch: Winter Angel look like high art in comparison. Because that did not happen. Not even slightly.

Kira flashing in This Life.

Buy A Book!

If you’ve enjoyed this, you’ll enjoy my book Can’t Help Thinking About Me, a collection of columns and features with a personal twist. Can’t Help Thinking About Me is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

Alternately, if you’re just feeling generous, you can buy me a coffee here. Don’t put it down, though, or Anna will probably shovel it up her nose.

Further Reading

The last scene of This Life makes it into the list of Best Ever Endings in Hang On A Minute Lads, I’ve Got A Great Idea…, which you can find here.

Executive Producer: Belinda Carlisle is a look at that other must-see late-night television show of 1996/1997, Brass Eye, which you can find here.

Further Listening

You can hear about a far less groundbreaking – and now thankfully forgotten – television series from 1996 in Looks Unfamiliar with Shanine Salmon here.

© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.