James Walton

Let’s talk about sex | 6 September 2018

BBC1’s Wanderlust, about couples who want to want to have sex but don’t actually want to have sex, is absorbing, ITV’s Vanity Fair strikingly sumptuous and Mike Bartlett’s Press gripping

Let’s talk about sex | 6 September 2018
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This week was bad news for fans of good television drama series — mainly because there’s now three more of the things to keep up with if you don’t want to feel left out of office conversations.

The one that stirred up the most advance media excitement was Wanderlust (BBC1, Tuesday), on the traditional grounds that it promised to be unusually explicit about sex. And in that, it certainly didn’t disappoint. The first episode began with a flurry of masturbation (not a phrase I can remember using in a TV column before). First, Joy, a middle-aged therapist, slipped a hand beneath the morning bedclothes — until her teenage son came in to ask where his shoes were. Then, a female teacher at the school where Joy’s husband works stumbled across a male colleague pleasuring himself — presumably rather nostalgically — over the lingerie section of a mail-order catalogue.

Both masturbators, though, had the same reason for their actions: they weren’t having sex with their spouses any more. And from there it was soon apparent that Wanderlust’s central theme would be the death of sexual desire in marriage.

Joy and husband Alan, for example, are faced with the realisation that while they’re still in love and want to want to have sex with each other, they don’t actually want to have sex with each other. Not that they don’t try. In one particularly — and brilliantly — excruciating scene, Joy (Toni Collette) welcomed Alan (Steven Mackintosh) home from work wearing her best man-pleasing underwear and making a highly creditable stab at sashaying seductively, only for him to react with a mixture of horror, embarrassment and something approaching pity.

Wanderlust has been adapted by Nick Payne from his own stage play and those origins do show in the almost pathological degree of middle-class articulacy and candour displayed by all the characters. (Even the teenage son flirts with the school hottie by demonstrating his impressive knowledge of the works of Jonathan Franzen.) At times, in fact, Joy and Alan feel a bit implausibly civilised, as they respond to each other’s crucifying honesty with a stroke of the metaphorical chin. Nevertheless, this is an absorbing and intelligent exploration of its bravely awkward subject matter — if perhaps not ideal viewing for long-married couples.

Meanwhile on ITV, Becky Sharp rides (yet) again in the latest adaptation of Vanity Fair. Of course, it’s not hard to see why Thackeray’s novel is such a popular TV choice: unlike most Victorian heroines, Becky doesn’t really need to be updated to suit contemporary tastes, with no drippiness to be glossed over or lack of assertiveness to be remedied.

Thanks to joint-funding from Amazon, this version is strikingly sumptuous. The scene in Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, for example, contained any number of extras dressed as the lower orders (and clearly the budget also extended to giving them lessons in screen cackling). Otherwise, it’s pretty much costume-drama business as usual, complete with such old-school qualities as trust in the source material and an extremely strong cast.

Playing Becky, Olivia Cooke has a neat line in dangerous twinkling, and an almost Sergeant Bilko-like ability to show her inner scheming flit briefly across her face. And although she definitely dominates proceedings, that doesn’t prevent the other thesps present from making sure we notice them too. Martin Clunes turns Sir Pitt Crawley’s gruffness up to at least 11. David Fynn puts in a memorably repulsive turn as Jos Sedley. Even so, the most shameless scene-stealer at this stage is Frances de la Tour, who tears into the part of the drunken Aunt Matilda with infectious relish (and several pounds of make-up).

Finally in TV’s back-to-school week, there’s Press (BBC1, Thursday), the new series from Doctor Foster writer Mike Bartlett. Admittedly, we journalists tend to be suckers for dramas about us journalists, but this is already looking like an especially fine one.

Charlotte Riley plays Holly Evans, deputy news editor on the Herald, a crusading leftist paper much concerned with Syria and sexism. (And just in case that doesn’t ring any bells, it started as a northern paper and has a propensity for misprints.) On the other side of the same London square lurks the Post, whose own campaigns prefer to feature Love Island contestants wearing crop tops with slogans on them.

As the two papers tackle the same stories, Bartlett shows us their different approaches in a way that’s both fully embodied in the drama and surprisingly even-handed. The Herald may be kindlier, but its virtue is not always distinguishable from self-regard. And not only is the Post more fun to read, it’s also far better at proper journalistic sleuthing — even if its staff seem unaware of how cruel its methods can be. The stories themselves are gripping too, with most of them strong enough to carry a drama series on their own.

All in all, then, that’s another three hours of the week that won’t be spent catching up on odd jobs or reading a book.