BBC drama Life mostly delivers – but did Gail and Henry’s story have to end like that?

Alison Steadman's wonderful Gail deserved better in Mike Bartlett's BBC drama Life, says Eleanor Bley Griffiths.

Peter Davison plays Henry in Life

Can I have been the only one who, while watching the finale to BBC One’s Life, was bitterly disappointed when Henry appeared at the church, re-introduced himself to Gail, and won her back over to their marriage? Nooo, Gail, don’t do it! He doesn’t deserve you!

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I confess: at first I thought he was actually a ghost, and had succumbed to his pancreatic cancer even sooner than expected, and was now visiting her from beyond the grave in an appropriately spiritual setting just to say goodbye. But no! In the last instalment of Mike Bartlett’s drama, the real flesh-and-blood Henry (Peter Davison) had finally – and quite suddenly – seen the error of his ways, and decided to stop being so mean to his wife Gail (Alison Steadman).

Perhaps I’m being a little unfair about Henry’s epiphany. But after six episodes of watching Henry dismiss his wife, shout down her concerns, belittle her, and refuse to countenance the idea that he’d treated her shabbily – well, it seemed like a very sudden about-turn.

Plus, when he told her he didn’t even like her any more just because she’d had a haircut and bought some pink clothes and discovered the joy of dancing badly in the garden with her grandson – that really broke my heart. Not to mention the affair, and his bodged and self-absorbed confession about said affair! And his absurd angry voicemails to his wife after she took off to get some space!

People can, of course, change – but until that last moment, there was no indication that Henry was willing to change whatsoever, so it didn’t quite ring true. Still. Gail was clearly still holding on to her love for him, just like she hung on to that locket full of wedding confetti, so you can see why she’d be prepared to give her terminally-ill husband another chance.

Henry and Gail in Life on the BBC

While I do feel that screenwriter Mike Bartlett did the dirty on Gail by putting her back with Henry, at least he did right by Hannah (Melissa Johns).

He had us believing that Hannah really would go ahead and get married to boring Liam (Joshua James), carried along by the momentum of the wedding and her desire not to disappoint the people around her.

But then, gloriously, Gail and Belle (Victoria Hamilton) and Maya (Erin Kellyman) helped her call the whole thing off. (Gail turned out to be a natural public speaker, so Henry can eat his words about that too.) Hannah was even able to track down Andy (Calvin Demba) and start a sweet, tentative romance at the back of the bus, still in her wedding dress. It made for a fitting finale.

Melissa Johns as Hannah in Life

And to top it off, what a lovely ending for Belle after the relentless emotional turmoil of the previous five episodes! Her big moment came at the wedding of her ex-husband Neil (Adam James), when she finally looked at him with clear eyes and realised she didn’t love him any more. These newly-clear eyes also allowed her to see what she needed to do for Maya (tell her she was proud of her, and be there for her) and to see how to move forward (quit drinking).

The thing I loved most about Belle’s ending was it was hard-won; it was the endpoint of a journey, but it is also the beginning of another journey.

Finally, there was David and Saira’s storyline – the most ludicrous of the four plots, and frankly the one I was the least invested in. For some reason David (Adrian Lester) and Saira (Saira Choudhry) have ended up back together, bound by their shared love of his wife Kelly (Rachael Stirling). Whatever works for them. You do you, David.

After beginning this drama, I gave it four stars in my Life review. After finishing it, I reckon that was just about right. This was a sometimes-silly drama with heart, which really made me care about (most of) the characters – Gail in particular.

With such a conclusive finale, I can’t see the show returning for a second season… but even if I never see her again, I’ll be worrying about lovely Gail for a while to come.

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