Mike Bartlett’s BBC drama Life is absorbing, watchable – and full of surprise twists

After episode one, I've been totally drawn in by brilliant performances from Alison Steadman, Peter Davison and Victoria Hamilton, says Eleanor Bley Griffiths.

Life David and Kelly
4.0 out of 5 star rating

***SPOILERS FOR LIFE EPISODE ONE***

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So David’s wife was actually dead all along! Henry has terminal cancer! The revelations came thick and fast in episode one of Life. And having seen the next two episodes, you can rest assured: there are plenty more twists to come – not that I’d dream of ruining them for you.

Screenwriter Mike Bartlett’s soapy new BBC drama got off to a great start. (And when I say ‘soapy’, I don’t mean that in a bad way at all.) Set within a large subdivided house in Manchester (rather than a soap-style street or square), this six-part drama follows the inhabitants of the building’s four flats on their different – but ultimately interconnecting – storylines. Plus there are some soap-style bombshells, which range from the brilliant to the slightly-daft.

The largest of the four flats belongs to Gail (Alison Steadman) and her husband Henry (Peter Davison), who have been married for many, many decades. But one day Gail bumps into a pedestrian (literally, with her car bumper) and realises she’s almost run over her old schoolfriend, Dawn, who turns Gail’s life upside down by reminding her of the vibrant and outgoing young woman she used to be. Dawn also pulls the wool from Gail’s eyes by pointing out the obvious: Henry is a boor and a bore who talks over his wife, belittles her, and treats her with little-to-no respect.

It is Gail’s story which, so far, is the most powerful in Life – though perhaps that’s to be expected with the acting powers of Steadman and Davison combined. And oh, you have to feel for Gail! All the little slights. All the obliviousness, and the patronising comments from her husband and her adult children who find her just so silly.

And just when she’s done a runner from her own 70th birthday party and packed a bag and written her husband a note informing him she needs some space… well, in comes Henry with his big news that he’s only got six months to live, and she must have guessed he was sick because what else could she possibly be upset about? (Again: oblivious.)

Peter Davison plays Henry in Life
Alison Steadman and Peter Davison in Life (BBC)

And let’s talk about Gail and Henry’s neighbour, David (Adrian Lester). In all the press leading up to the first episode, poor Lester had to be super vague about what the deal was with his character, who he could only say was ‘going through a difficult time in his marriage’ or whatever half-truth had been carefully crafted to avoid giving away the big spoiler.

But Bartlett planted little clues all the way through the episode (which I have to say I totally missed) and finally David dropped the big reveal: his wife Kelly (Rachael Stirling) hit her head and died five weeks ago. We’ve been watching him chatting away with ghost-Kelly all along.

The Sixth Sense-style dead-wife thing is slightly naff, but I have to say the twist was unexpected. It also gives a new meaning to David’s encounter with Saira (played by Saira Choudhry), the bold young woman who invaded his holiday apartment in episode one, drank his wine, asked him a bunch of questions and then kissed him on the lips.

That said, I do have a few gripes about the troubled-widowed-lecturer-pursued-by-younger-woman trope, which continues when Saira inevitably resurfaces later in the series (as you’d expect). Honestly, I rolled my eyes a lot while watching David’s scenes in the first few episodes; but then the storyline did not exactly go where I expected – and I’ll say no more.

This drama also functions as a sort of spin-off of Mike Bartlett’s previous hit BBC drama Doctor Foster, and many people will have tuned in to catch up with Anna Baker (Victoria Hamilton), now going by the name of Belle. She is one of two Doctor Foster characters in Life; the other being Neil, who arrives later in the series.

Victoria Hamilton plays Belle in Life
Victoria Hamilton plays Belle in Life (BBC)
BBC

Since her divorce, she’s been trying to build a new life in Manchester, and on the surface it looks like things are going OK – but in reality she’s only just keeping herself together, pushing back the loneliness and alcoholism while keeping her flat super-clean and super-tidy.

Then her sister tries to kill herself, and Belle suddenly has to open her flat to her 15-year-old niece Maya (Erin Kellyman) who is chaotic, vulnerable, and angry. It’s really the last thing that tightly-wound Belle can handle, which naturally makes for excellent drama. Oh, the scenes with Belle and Maya are so good! And so painful! (And, sometimes, quite funny.)

The final flat in the building is home to Hannah (Melissa Johns), an empathetic and funny young woman who is about to give birth to her first kid – and, in fact, does give birth to her first kid on the living room floor by the end of episode one. Since getting pregnant she’s paired up with Liam (Joshua James), who is keen to be this baby’s father – but the baby’s biological father Andy (Calvin Demba) is also involved. Hannah’s a fan of that; Liam isn’t; Andy isn’t sure where he stands. It’s an interesting set-up, and it’ll be intriguing to see where Bartlett goes with it.

But whatever Bartlett has in store for us, we won’t all be discussing it at the same time – because, while the drama’s six episodes will continue to be doled out on BBC One at 9pm every Tuesday, the whole series is already available as a boxset on iPlayer. And I really wish it wasn’t! Life is the kind of drama that could really be ‘event TV’ given a proper chance. It’s also the kind of drama that’s best watched an episode at a time, instead of binged, so you should really hold back and watch it weekly if you can.

After watching the first episode of Life, I had it down for a three-star review. But then, over the next few days, I found I liked it more and more – and I could not stop thinking about it. Gail and Belle live in my head now. I have genuine anger towards Henry. I’m rooting for Hannah. So here we are: four stars for Life, and a lot more twists to come.

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Life continues on Tuesdays at 9pm on BBC One, and is available as a boxset on BBC iPlayer now. Check out what else is on with our TV Guide, or take a look at our new TV shows 2020 page to find out what’s airing this autumn and beyond.