Alison Rowat’s TV review: Marriage; Long Lost Family: What Happened Next; Britain’s Secret War Babies; Afghanistan: Getting Out

Gerry (James Bolam), Emma (Nicola Walker), Marriage. The Forge, Rory Mulvey
Gerry (James Bolam), Emma (Nicola Walker), Marriage. The Forge, Rory Mulvey

HOW are you? I feel I should ask having just watched Marriage (BBC1, Sunday-Monday), one of the most disturbing television experiences of the year (and I speak as someone who has sat through all the Tory leadership debates).

Anyone expecting a reprise of writer-director Stefan Golaszewski’s delicately bittersweet comedy Mum would have been in for a shock.

It looked reassuringly normal from the outside. Nicola Walker and Sean Bean (we like them) played Emma and Ian, a couple about to celebrate 27 years together. The trailer had them getting smoochy and Ian pausing the passion to switch on the dishwasher. Married life, eh? Ian and Emma as the noughties version of Terry and June? Bring it on.

The opening scene set the tone for what was to follow. Ian and Emma were at the airport, having lunch, before boarding a plane home from holiday. A quiet bicker began over a missing jacket potato. Ian always had one. Emma hadn’t even asked.

By the time the pair were fastening seatbelts the fight had escalated to Defcon 2, complete with swearing. Yet as the plane took off he grabbed her hand like a man who has lost his grip on a cliff edge. It was not about the baked potato, not really. It was about his fear of flying and his need for routine as a way of feeling in control.

Golaszewski was just getting started. We were introduced to Emma’s father (the great James Bolam), who thinks his daughter is being controlled by her husband; the couple’s singer-songwriter daughter, who is being controlled by her new boyfriend; and Emma’s boss, a sleazy solicitor out to control her. All this control of women by men going on, while everyone looks as if they are about to blow their collective top.

It was unnerving, as was the glacial pace, the long pauses in dialogue, and a weird track that played now and then and sounded like instructions to a dance. What was with Emma’s rage? Or the way the pair kissed passionately in public? Had they never recovered from the tragedy in the past?

Some just won’t fancy Marriage much. It did feel at times as though there had been some mistake and primetime BBC1 was showing a three-hour Polish arthouse film without subtitles.

But I loved its merciless accuracy. You had to stop nodding in recognition at all the little details lest your head dropped off by episode end. It was a portrait of a marriage, sure, but it was also a warning about power and control, who has it, who does not, and what happens when the order of things is challenged.

TV to talk about, that kept you guessing. When was the last time that happened? But yes, if you were in the mood for something light it would have been a downer.

The Long Lost Family team have carried out more than 700 searches in the show’s 12 years on screen. One of the most memorable was Paula Stillie, adopted as a baby and brought up in Scotland.

Paula discovered her father was Native American. Though he had passed away, his brothers and sisters were still in Montana. Contact was made over video call – it was pandemic times – with Paula promising to visit asap. The result was shown in Long Lost Family: What Happened Next (STV, Monday) and it did not disappoint.

It wasn’t all happy tears and hugs. Paula’s birth mother had also been traced but she did not want contact.

There were more sore hearts in Britain’s Secret War Babies (Channel 4, Wednesday), which met two of the estimated 2000 children fathered by black GIs stationed in the UK during the Second World War.

Mary had been bullied viciously as a child. John’s stepdad took his rage out on the boy and his mother. Though both had made happy families of their own, they still longed to know their birth fathers. Journalist Sean Fletcher turned himself into a one-man Long Lost Family team and did the necessary.

Hardly groundbreaking television, particularly with Long Lost Family around, but it meant the world to John and Mary.

For the documentary Afghanistan – Getting Out (BBC2, Sunday) a lot of money had clearly been spent bringing together some very important people to set out where the West went so badly wrong.

It was as fascinating as it was sometimes infuriating (a smug David Cameron: “It was never going to be Denmark in the desert”). But did it say any more about the mess the US-led mission created, and the opportunities lost, than those images of an American plane taking off from Kabul with abandoned Afghans clinging to the outside? Nope, but it was revealing about Joe Biden, the man in charge when the music finally stopped last year.

I’m off to watch the final two episodes of Marriage. Wish me luck.

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