7/7 drama A Song for Jenny: a tough but compelling watch

Emily Watson and Steven Mackintosh are the anguished parents dealing with the death of their daughter in the London terrorist attacks

BBC1’s new drama about the death of a young woman in the 7/7 terrorist attacks and the anguish wrought upon her family is, as you would expect, not an easy watch. But it is a compelling and important one.

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The 75-minute drama A Song for Jenny, based on the memoirs of Julie Nicholson, opens with a normal happy-go-lucky family enjoying life.

Julie (played by Appropriate Adult and The Politician’s Husband star Emily Watson) is a Bristol vicar enjoying time with her family before most of them go off for a holiday Anglesey. I say most of them because Jenny (Nicola Wren) has to head off back to London for work. Soon we find her preparing for another day in the office, hurrying off, kissing her boyfriend, imploring him to get out of bed and get to work himself. And, tragically for her, she’s soon going to be boarding a train.

The drama, scripted by Frank McGuinness’ (which was showcased tonight for the first time at a Bafta screening), is packed with moments that stay with you.

Obviously we are prepared for what is to come but the revelation later in the drama that Jenny was on the ill-fated Edgware Road train because of problems with her normal tube line only add to the heartbreak.

Due to air next month around the tenth anniversary of the attacks, this is a story of chance, cruel chance, and the actions of some very horrible people. But mainly it’s focused on the devastating, long-lasting, unthinkable impact the bombings had on a family of ordinary, lovely people.

While much if it is hard to even contemplate or face, there are moments amid the pain and anguish that resonate and occasionally comfort. There’s the kindness of friends, relations and strangers. And Julie and her husband (Steven Mackintosh’s Greg) cling to whatever hope they can think of in the aftermath of the attacks, hoping against hope that Jenny may be injured, or wandering the streets dazed and confused. It feels real.

I recall visiting a family of a victim two days after the attacks while working for the Sunday Times and they clung to the same hope. That hope was misplaced. But you understand the need. Boy, do you understand it.

And in this drama the prior knowledge that Jenny has been killed casts a shadow over every scene.

In many ways this drama is carried by Watson. Julie wrote the book and it is a story of a woman’s grief – something which can feel stifling at times. She is so wrapped up in her grief she shuts out everybody else. Greg complains that Jenny is his daughter too, another moment that hits home.

Watson is astonishing at capturing the anger and violence of Julie’s feelings, at one point smashing up the kitchen, so angry and impotent does she feel.

But perhaps the most powerful scene is when she visits her lifeless child and anoints her body. It’s a religious tradition, but one which here feels transformed into the ultimate – final – act of love between a mother and her daughter.

There is beautiful moment afterwards when she receives an unexpected act of kindness from a stranger – but quite understandably this isn’t capable of restoring her faith in humanity. What could?

Readers of Julie Nicholson’s book will know she was unable to remain a priest afterwards because she could not honestly preach the Christian teaching of forgiveness when she felt so much hatred towards the man who murdered her daughter.

The drama touches on this but leaves the story at the moment of Jenny’s funeral with a sign of hope (that I won’t spoil).

A Song for Jenny is a gruelling piece of drama about pain and hopelessness. And a mesmerising watch because of it.

A Song for Jenny is on Sunday 5th July on BBC1 at 9pm

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