James Walton

A gentle soap opera with nudity and book chat: Conversations with Friends reviewed

Plus: BBC2’s extraordinary Floodlights will pin you to the sofa

A gentle soap opera with nudity and book chat: Conversations with Friends reviewed
Sasha Lane as Bobbi and as Alison Oliver as Frances in Conversations with Friends. Credit: BBC/Element Pictures/Enda Bowe
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Conversations with Friends




It’s official: television has a new genre. Its features include leisurely half-hour episodes, plenty of literary chat, several scenes set in libraries, not much humour and lots of close-ups of the thoughtful faces of clever young Irish women. It would also have presented a serious dilemma for teenage boys growing up before the internet, in that there’s not a great deal of exciting incident but there is a reliably high quotient of sex.

The genre in question is, of course, the Sally Rooney adaptation – which, having laid the groundwork in 2020 with Normal People, has now cemented its new-genre status with Conversations with Friends.

Sure enough, the first episode opened on the library steps of Trinity College, Dublin, where two young women were discussing a poem that one of them had written. Shortly afterwards, their joint performance of it at an arts club impressed Melissa Baines who, somewhat unusually these days, has a lucrative career as an essayist. She also has a hunky husband, Nick, on whom Frances the poet soon developed a crush rivalled only by that of her friend Bobbi on Melissa. Frances then became even more smitten when she saw Nick in a Tennessee Williams play, which – in the Sally Rooney equivalent of a cat fight – caused her to mount a stout defence of Williams against Bobbi’s charge that his work is ‘mannered’.

Before long, the four were hanging out together, including at lectures on social hierarchy, and pondering the meaning of art. Luckily, Melissa and Bobbi’s frequent smoking breaks meant Frances and Nick were able to supply another key feature of the genre: looking meaningfully at each other while having stilted conversations. Until, that is, the meaningful looks morphed into something more…

As with Normal People, how much you enjoy Conversations with Friends may depend on whether you take the characters as seriously as they’re taken by both Rooney and themselves. For some authors, there might have been rich possibilities for satire in such remarks as ‘I’ve always thought of writing as a desire for permanence’, delivered as if it were startlingly original. Or in Frances and Bobbi’s feminist verse, which rather recalled Oscar Wilde’s belief that ‘All bad poetry is sincere’. Here, however, everything is accepted on the characters’ own terms.

And maybe, I suppose, this is as it should be. Certainly, the programme captures plenty that feels authentic about being in your early twenties: from the wild intellectual self-confidence (sometimes justified, sometimes not) to the combination of pride and shame at not quite being one of the grown-ups. Yet, even if you do go along with the prevailing seriousness, the programme – at this stage anyway – still has a problem: the central love stories are pretty bland. Most obviously, Nick and Melissa’s marriage doesn’t seem important enough to either of them for there to be much jeopardy in either of them having affairs. And now Nick’s relationship with Frances feels similarly underpowered.

Granted, it may be that the first three episodes of 12 represent the slow trundling ascent to the top of a rollercoaster. But even if so, my guess is that the ride we’re in for won’t require the removal of your glasses – or, indeed, a seatbelt. Meanwhile, what we’ve had so far seems less the promised searing examination of the zeitgeist and more a gentle soap opera with added nudity and book chat.

Any dramatisation of the life of Andy Woodward – the ex-footballer who in 2016 blew the whistle on his years of abuse by the Crewe Alexandra youth coach Barry Bennell – was likely to pack something of an emotional punch. BBC2’s extraordinary Floodlights, though, pinned us to the sofa from first minute to last.

The opening section was heavy in unbearable dramatic irony as the 15-year-old Andy told his parents in 1989 that being taken under Bennell’s wing was ‘the best news ever’. He then begged them to be allowed to go to a sleepover at Bennell’s house. And from there, Matt Greenhalgh’s drama traced the grooming process with a horrifying plausibility much intensified by Jonas Armstrong’s performance as Bennell, which was often at its most sinister when the man himself was at his most genial.

Framing this was the no less wrenching story of Andy’s adult life, starting in the late 1990s when the continuing effects of the abuse had already comprehensively derailed his career – but were by no means finished with him yet.

After 80 minutes of unremittingly harrowing scenes, the last one did its best to suggest some sort of redemption once he’d gone public, causing another 100 men to come forward and Bennell to be jailed for 34 years. But by then the sense of a life destroyed was so overwhelming – and piercingly sad – that there was little in the way of consolation.