The first episode of Birdsong aired last Sunday and immediately sent viewers scurrying to their dictionaries in search of superlatives.
Not for the first time in my life, I found myself out of step with the majority. Put simply: I was bored.
OK, so it wasn’t all bad. The scenes set on the French battlefields in 1916 were rich in character, heavy on atmosphere and strong on tension. But, oh dear, those flashbacks to Amiens in 1910…
The pre-war characters (with the possible exception of Isabelle’s sister, Jeanne) were just so annoying. Not to mention dull. Isabelle’s tremendous beauty is rivalled only by her insipidness. Limpid-eyed Stephen Wraysford is little better. It’s been too many years and too many books since I read Sebastian Faulks’s novel, but I really don’t remember Isabelle and Stephen being quite so drippy then.
The whole episode seemed to be an exercise in emoting. But Mr Director, I know Eddie Redmayne can act. I knew within about five seconds of the programme starting, as the camera scanned over the battlefield and sought him out among the troops. His expression mirrored exactly a look I’d seen before – on the faces of traumatised young soldiers photographed after undergoing the rigours of special forces training.
Why, then, did it have to be demonstrated over and over again, in an increasingly irritating series of wordless exchanges, that both Redmayne and Clémence Poésy can fulfill their job descriptions? Ordinarily, I’m all in favour of less dialogue, of writers butting out and allowing actors more freedom to act. But here the dialogue-free moments were so prolonged as to be laughable.
Over the course of 90 minutes, their darting looks became urgent looks; I looked at my watch and sighed. I’ve witnessed more satisfying exchanges of stolen glances play out on the Tube.
I’ll tune in this week to see how the story ends and whether I actually start caring about the syrupy lovers. But based on what I’ve seen so far, I’d happily have had either Isabelle or Stephen trade places with the unfortunate Turner and drown within the first 15 minutes. It would have saved the rest of us from the ensuing, stomach-churning wave of sentiment. Birdsong concludes tonight at 9pm on BBC1/BBC1 HD