For me, author John O'Farrell is a genius. His novels are just hilarious and continually make me laugh out loud. So when I read May Contain Nuts, with its premise of a mother dressing up as her daughter to take a prestigious school entrance exam, I thought yup, this would make a cool script. In my head I'd pictured Catherine Tate, with her stroppy teenage act already honed, but actually the diminutive Shirley Henderson was perfectly cast. It's been a while since I read the book, but if memory serves this was a pretty faithful adaptation. The trouble was, and this was a real eye opener for me, we react differently to things on a page to things on screen. I know what you're thinking - tell us something we don't know! We know a great book doesn't necessarily make a great screenwork. But what I mean by this is that you can take the same characters, doing the same things, with the same basic motivations, that you like and find very, very funny - put them on screen, and find the whole thing irritating, unbelievable and generally lacking charm.
It didn't seem to be confident enough to play the material straight, but just make it really, really funny. Maybe this was the intention, and right from the word go it was meant to be a satire of upper middle class Britain, UK soccer mums, and all its trappings. (Writer Mark Burton certainly has a fantastic pedigree in quality satire and Elizabeth Berrington played Ffion with such scene chewing, comic book villainy that she was scarier than many a feature film baddie.) But tonally, something similar to say, Outnumbered, may have worked better. Outnumbered does not look to satire what it's like to live in a British middle class family, it is what it's like to live in a British middle class family - constructed and heightened of course to get the comedy, but still played straight. So many of the values of modern life, so much of what we place emphasis on and give importance to, so much about our education system is wrong and ludicrous already, you don't really need to 'send it up.' Just play it straight and work with characters we can relate to and empathise with, whilst concentrating on the comedy, and you may end up with a far more engaging script.
Lack of engagement is not something Occupation suffered from. How often do we hear why can't we do something like The Wire over here blah blah? Well okay, this drama was only three hours long, but still, in terms of quality, it was brilliantly written by Peter Bowker. I'm also really pleased it was three hours long. Not quite sure about the whole consecutive nights thing, but there must have been a massive temptation to say okay let's cut this to two hours so we can make it a one off TV event. But the three hours allowed the story to play out in a much more fulfilling, sweeping, emotional roller coaster.
What was most impressive is that there was no agenda in Occupation. No generalised statements, no easy answers, no simple solutions. This was epitomised with the final scene, when three characters just sit, looking at each other, and you can feel them thinking, how the hell did we all get here?
I've been deliberately vague and I'll tell you why. I'm gonna make this a first for Things we noticed watching TV this week. I just want everyone to go and watch it. I don't think it's still on iplayer, but it's out on DVD and even if you don't want to buy it, it can certainly be rented. Post what you thought about it, and why, here. And hopefully appreciate that this, is what we can achieve on British TV.