“Oh the heavy water, how it enfolds
The salt, the spray, the gorgeous undertow
Always, always, always the sea
British Sea Power, ‘Carrion’
Archive footage of the kind that’s filled a hundred snoozy BBC4 documentaries, overlaid with music by an indie band from Sussex. No captions, no commentary, no clear narrative. So why am I crying?
The Storyville documentary From the Sea to the Land Beyond (Sunday BBC4), directed with fathomless humanity by Penny Woolcock and soundtracked by British Sea Power, drew on a century of BFI film charting our relationship with the ocean – how so much of this island’s work and play is, or was, concentrated at the coast.
This wasn’t one to have playing casually on the larger of two screens. It was a thing to be immersed in. Whisky poured, speakers up. With no words to guide, full concentration was necessary. But once you were in, the alchemy of precisely arranged visuals and sweeping, shuddering music was mesmeric.
The story started with turn-of-the-century gallavanters in hats and big cossies, peering jovially into a camera that made them look slightly speeded up. It ran more or less chronologically until it got to oil rigs in the 70s and the Docklands selling its past to become a financial centre in the 80s and 90s. A large span, but everything was suffused with must and melancholy. Industries, ways of life and so many people, all long lost.
Beauty pageants, shipyards with masts and funnels stretching out like city skylines, charabancs down to Brighton, vast liners and tankers built by man and thrown hopefully into peril – all these scenes, energetically and economically put together by Woolcock and her editor Alex Fry, showed the sea as something infinitely fascinating, inspiring and dangerous.
The bustle was interrupted twice by World Wars, introduced the first time with bright, energetic shots of men training with bayonets. The second war was met with a moment of black chaos, before a quiet regrouping as Spitfires were assembled and sent out over the sea towards France – British Sea Power fans will have known the two-note string refrain was from the song No Lucifer.
In what might just be an even better piece of work than any of BSP’s albums, the soundtrack matched the film unerringly, sometimes by deliberately choosing relevant songs (Carrion, for a moving passage on lifeboatmen) but more often by reacting to the changing moods: here with spruce guitars, there with grimy colliery brass, now with solitary, sad piano. Always the music somehow took away that thick layer of glass that’s normally between us and the strangers in old film. With the drums throbbing and melodies swaying, you saw these 100-year-old faces for half a second, and cared for them. It was as inexplicably wistful and warming as the Shipping Forecast.
Woolcock had dug up fistfuls of images that were hypnotically beautiful or tantalisingly weird in their own right: a woman dancing on a girder, dangerously high up; blindfolded men hitting each other with socks full of sand as their uniformed colleagues cheered them on; a white-hot whip of metal curving around a forge, out of control; children walking barefoot across heath to a clifftop church.
Between eras, the music stopped and we simply looked out to sea. Time passed, people died, the ocean sat there impassively. The tide kept on coming in.
A more obvious triumph for BBC4’s understated cleverness, increasingly celebrated as the superb third series developed, was Getting On, which ended its run on Wednesday. Jo Brand, Joanna Scanlan and Vicki Pepperdine write and act this comedy, set in a women-only geriatric hospital ward. It’s a masterclass in letting your creations breathe.
The main characters are all female, something that hardly ever happens on television but is never emphasised. This series acknowledged the accelerating privatisation of the health service, but wove it into Pepperdine’s ace portrayal of the antagonist Dr Moore, a brittle snob who uses her sharp elbows to nurse her own reputation and sees patients as stock to be processed – or, in series three, potential subjects for her photographic study of vaginal atrophy in the elderly.
Dr Moore’s desire for profitable efficiency is constantly undermined by grubby reality in the form of Den and Kim, the ward sister and nurse who have to dish out the drugs, shuffle the beds and “wipe the bums”. Scanlan’s Den is a jumble of kindness, daydreams, delusion and loneliness whose pregnancy this year made her even more distracted and vulnerable – but Kim is our eyes and heart, thanks to Brand’s selfless performance.
Getting On gives Kim no comic traits apart from weary bluntness and a drab home life, hinted at in phone calls about running out of ketchup. While the funny, absurd stuff was happening to Pepperdine and Scanlan, Brand represented the show’s frustrated compassion, buffeted by bureaucratic idiocy and often disobeying orders to do little favours for the patients or avoid another dirty, pointless task.
Kim’s attempt to become a doctor was crushed in mundane fashion: she didn’t have the time or ability to pass the relevant course. The last episode had emotional pay-offs for Dr Moore and Den, earnt through careful but unobtrusive series-long plotting, that gave the characters new depth. Kim just bumbled off home as usual but, BBC4 budgets willing, she’ll be back to win more tiny victories against depressing odds.
Oh, and the first episode of Last Tango in Halifax (Tuesdays BBC1) was perfect, such that I don’t think I want to watch another one – or if I do, I’ll pretend it’s a different programme and this was a precious one-off. Anne Reid and Derek Jacobi were two Yorkshire pensioners, both widowed, who had been separated by chance as teenagers but still lived not too far apart. Pushed onto Facebook by the grandkids, they found each other, met in person, and slowly revealed that each had pined for the other for 50 years or more.
Reid and Jacobi unfurled the fantasy I-love-you-too romance in Sally Wainwright’s sparky script until the last scene, when their families burst into the café with their subplots about ex-husbands and tricky children and lesbian affairs and mysterious pasts. There’s five more episodes of that stuff, but anything that isn’t those two impeccable actors glowing at each other across a teapot will be a cold second-best.