Age Before Beauty first-look review: Poldark’s Debbie Horsfield skilfully examines ageism and body image in new BBC1 drama
The Poldark scriptwriter's new show is set in a Manchester beauty salon – 13 years after her hit BBC drama Cutting It
Bel (Polly Walker) is a solid, smart, kind, loyal woman facing up to the fact that her two children have flown the nest. As new series Age Before Beauty opens, she and husband Wesley (James Murray) are taking them to university, waving goodbye, and having a little cry.
The question quickly becomes: what next? How to fill the inevitable hole of time and love? For Bel, the answer is to get stuck into her family’s business, a down-at-heel beauty salon called Mirrorbel in Manchester's Northern Quarter.
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The business has been run for the last few years by Bel's ghastly, vain sister Leanne (Kelly Harrison) and is on the brink of going bust according to Leanne’s’ husband Teddy – a slippery smoothie played by Robson Green.
He wants Bel to deploy her people skills and deep understanding of the business to remedy the mess. Or so he says. As we learn in episode one, his motivations are a bit more complicated than that…
It’s an interesting premise from writer Debbie Horsfield, the Poldark writer who seems to be channelling something of the spirit of her classic noughties BBC1 show Cutting It.
Cutting It, which starred Sarah Parish, was also set in a Manchester salon, and became a zinging family saga that seemed to capture the spirit of its age.
Age Before Beauty shows how our times and preoccupations have changed. In the new drama, everyone seems that bit more self-obsessed, a bit more preoccupied with the surface. It’s as if social media, since Cutting It, has made narcissists of us all, a point Horsfield herself made in an article for Radio Times.
Of course, Poldark fans might want to consider the rather delicious irony that the writer who got Aidan Turner to take his top off in Poldark is now making a drama about the dangers of searching for the perfect figure. But it’s done with cool intelligence, with each character’s story neatly overlapping the other.
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For example, Bel’s husband Wesley seems loyal on the surface, but is soon drawn towards his personal trainer, the extraordinarily beautiful Lorelei (Madeleine Mantock).
Bel's sister Heidi (Vicky Myers) meanwhile wants her daughter Disney to perform at beauty pageants – and the poor thing seems to want anything but. The child’s name – Disney – doesn’t seem to be accidental, either.
The family matriarch, the formidable Ivy-Rae (Sue Johnston) offers another perspective on the idea of having it all. She doesn't care what she looks like and is intent on still living life to the full. Even in her 70s she still dances the nights away to Northern Soul music.
And for Ivy-Rae (nicknamed Razors by her family), if pursuing her own desires and meeting other men means humiliating her wheelchair-bound husband Chizzler (Struan Rodger), so be it as far as she is concerned.
It’s a heady cocktail with a rich ensemble, even if at times it feels as if there are too many strong personalities jostling for attention. As for the character of Leanne, she is so foul to her sister that it’s hard to work out how she is tolerated at all by Bel or the rest of the family.
But Debbie Horsfield is an exceptionally sharp writer who unwraps her narratives with care, so it would be unwise to judge anyone on appearances in a drama where more secrets are bound to be revealed.
Age Before Beauty starts on BBC1 on Tuesday 31st July