The politics of all this may not sound terribly subtle, and Davies is indeed what we used to call “right-on”. None of his characters, though, is remotely one-dimensional. Daniel’s husband, Ralph, is a budding conspiracy theorist, enamoured with the anti-intellectualism of Jenkyns, sorry Hopkins, sorry Rook. Rosie has a keen occasional sex life and is completely irrelevantly in a wheelchair most of the time, for reasons the narrative deals with so lightly that I didn’t spot mention of them at all. Quietly, it’s revolutionary.
The satire here clodhops sometimes, but forgivably and probably deliberately too, with a tongue firmly in a cheek, which itself is cheek-by-jowl with big drama and big messages. Davies, as you probably know, once brought us Queer As Folk, then brought back Doctor Who, then gave us the Banana/Cucumber mix, then did last year’s A Very English Scandal. In a way, all of his work has been statementy state-of-the-nation stuff, even Doctor Who, but it has never been as broad, polished and ambitious as this. I suppose it might all go to pot in future episodes, but if it doesn’t? Maybe something to look forward to in five, ten or even fifteen years’ time will be whatever he’s making then.
The Virtues, on Channel 4, is also quite state-of-the-nation, but in a wholly different way. After seeing Stephen Graham so wasted in Line of Duty, it’s quite something to watch him completely dominate this, in a reminder of everything he can do and how well he does it. Made by Shane Meadows, best known for the various This is England dramas, it’s the four-part story of a man who struggles with alcoholism and heartbreak when his former partner moves with their son and her new man to Australia. Which sounds pretty bleak on the page, I’ll grant you, but Meadows is brilliant at marrying bleakness with something bigger, extracting a sort of brittle and breathtaking human dignity from situations you expect to have almost none.
That said, his intense realism can sometimes be a little too listless to bear, but the drama here is surreptitiously tight too. Graham’s character, Joseph, doesn’t blame his ex for going and tries, and fails, to mask his own despair. At least half of this first episode and maybe more is about the bender he goes on the night before they leave. At first he’s in the pub alone, then he’s befriending everyone, then it all starts to go wrong. Going right back to the very first This is England, Meadows and Graham have a history of scenes like this, where good cheer devolves into mania, and you can feel the succubus fingers of danger and disgrace pulling at their character’s ankles. Nothing quite so dramatic happens here, but you hold your breath watching all the same, knowing how quickly it could.