There’s nothing I like better than a railway-based story of forbidden love. Brief Encounter is my favourite – all of that exquisitely delicate suffering, the utter longing that neither Celia Johnson nor Trevor Howard could give in to because they were just too bloody decent. Both were trapped in stultifying lives, Johnson notably with a husband who wore tank tops in the house, but duty came first, real love with a stranger on a railway station platform came second. By the end, everyone had died a little inside but, by heavens, they had done the Right Thing.
Such is my incurable romanticism about trains, doomed love and noble suffering, I looked forward to The 7.39 (BBC1, Monday and Tuesday) a drama written by David Nicholls (who had a massive hit with his novel One Day) where two people meet and fall in love during their daily dreary commuter journey to London.
As I do a daily dreary commuter journey myself this kind of story has a particular piquancy. In idle moments when my book bores me or concentration is impossible because of the hip-hop leaking from someone’s headphones (why so loud? Doesn’t such volume cauterise eardrums?) it’s nice to daydream and speculate about the lives of others. Are train carriages really cauldrons of stolen glances and sly flirting? I’d like to think so.
So estate agent Carl (David Morrissey) and health club manager Sally (Sheridan Smith) fall into each other’s lives on the 7.39 from the suburbs into Waterloo. He’s married (to Olivia Colman, who’s completely wasted in a nothing role) with kids, stuck in a job he hates. She’s bridling in a relationship with a gormless hunk who’s pressuring her into a marriage she clearly doesn’t want.
The two leads are great, but The 7.39 turns out to be a bland romance, with a course you can plot without the need of a compass, the usual older man/younger woman male wish fulfilment fantasy. Can’t we do better than this? How much more interesting would it have been, and what a better use of Olivia Colman’s talents, to make HER the other woman. What a great partnership – Morrissey and Colman, married to other people, both wanting the one thing in the world they want the most, but cannot have.
David Nicholls describes The 7.39 as a “love story for grown-ups” but it isn’t, not really, for all of the reasons above. It would be nice to be treated by TV as a grown-up, to be trusted to handle a story that doesn’t resolve itself in a way that’s completely expected. I’d like to think that dramas don’t lack ambition but I’m starting to wonder. The outrageous, wild and wonderful Whitechapel (ITV) and more recently Ripper Street (BBC1) have gone, the latter particularly to great audience consternation. I wasn’t a fan, but I could see that it had a sharpness and a skewed kind of morality that was out of the ordinary. (It’s notable, too, that ITV ditched Whitechapel but have brought back the insipid mystery drama The Bletchley Circle, which starts a new series tonight.)
Of course I’m not saying that every drama should be like Whitechapel and Ripper Street because that would be deeply silly. Besides, I am so soppy that I love romantic dramas and I want to see more of them. But they need to be less ordinary because TV’s palette has to be varied, as the BBC Trust has recently demanded of BBC1 peak-time drama in a string of objectives for new director-general Tony Hall. Too much uniformity, too much of the “expected”, can be cloying.