Meet the Defoes: a family of lawyers who dominate London’s divorce circuit, killing it in court and thrashing out custody deals over the negotiating table. And meet Hannah (Nicola Walker), eldest daughter and divorce lawyer extraordinaire – only she’s kind of having a rough day.
To start with, it’s the day of the ‘surprise’ 70th birthday party for her mum Ruth (Deborah Findlay). The pair’s relationship has been fractious ever since Hannah left the family firm and joined a competitor.
Secondly, her new job sees her go up against her sister Nina (Annabel Scholey) in a bitter custody battle between comedian Rex Pope, creator of stand-up show My Ex-Wife’s a Bitch, and said ex-wife, who is understandably vexed.
Finally, before Hannah can even get to the office, her dad turns up for the first time in 30 years, just to say hi.
A confession: until it was pointed out to me, I hadn’t really clocked that this was a female-led drama. It was just a drama with a bunch of interesting characters doing interesting things.
I almost hesitate to point it out now, since it’s so refreshing to have women front and centre in a series like this and for it not to even be a big deal.
But it is worth mentioning – because there is a moment in the episode when the fact that it is female-led and the work of a female screenwriter (the Emmy and Bafta award-winning Abi Morgan) becomes vital.
That moment comes when Hannah gives a rousing speech paying tribute to the Defoe family’s formidable matriarch, who raised three daughters alone while simultaneously forging a career in law.
The reappearance of their long-lost dad Oscar (Anthony Head), on top of Hannah’s decision to leave the family law firm and compete with her sister and mother – all of that plays out against the background of Ruth, Hannah, Nina and little sister Rose’s history as a unit standing together against the world.
Now they’re faced with big the big questions they tackle every day at work. What is the value of family, of motherhood and sisterhood? Does every child need a father? How well can we ever know our husbands and wives when over 100,000 marriages a year end in divorce?
Sure, that all sounds very serious. But while it might feel like the BBC is deluging us with divorce dramas at the moment in some kind of concerted campaign to prove that love is futile – see also Christopher Eccleston drama Come Home – there is good news: The Split is far from drab misery. It’s genuinely sharp, witty and funny.
The only drawback is that the initial part of episode one is a bit of a drag. You’re just waiting for the whole thing to get cracking, but there’s so many people to meet and so much scene-setting to do.
That calls for a lot of explanatory dialogue. Take this exceptionally informative chat between a married couple, with Hannah complaining to her husband Nathan about her sister Nina: “I have to see her twice today. Twice! Once at the office and once at the party.”
Just in case his wife has forgotten, Nathan is ready with some background: “It’s been six weeks, Hannah. That’s what happens when you walk away from the family firm.”
Got it? Got it.
However, with all the family dynamics firmly established, the brilliant performances are allowed to take over.
Nicola Walker is intense as the indomitable Hannah, with Stephen Mangan as her charmingly flirtatious husband. Meera Syal brings understated fury to her role of heartbroken wife Goldie, while Deborah Findlay plays the kind of mother you wouldn’t dare cross, a pillar of strength – but also infuriating.
In fact, a lot of the characters behave infuriatingly, and at times you’ll want to give them a good shaking. But don’t break up with The Split just because of that – if you’re faithful to the drama, this could be the start of a beautiful relationship.