'Imagination will take you everywhere'
On paper the BBC’s 7.39 looked like T.V gold. With the fantastic Sheridan Smith as lead actress – whose rise in the acting world has seen her conquer both stage (Legally Blonde, A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and screen (Gavin & Stacey, Mrs Biggs) – as well as David Morrissey and the delightful Olivia Colman. Not to mention the two-part series was written by David Nicholls, the master behind the highly emotive yet tragic love story, One Day. So I was optimistic as I settled down to watch the opening episode.
First shot: a close up of a light hanging from a white ceiling. No this is not the beginning of an interrogation scene, but a regular and painfully boring sight for Morrissey’s character, Carl, as it means he has woken from his slumbers and now has to catch the 7.39 commuter train from Surrey to Waterloo. Cue a montage of shots depicting a stressed, miserable and slightly bad-tempered man rushing to get out of the door in time whilst having to deal with the conundrums of daily family life (AKA teenage kids). It is a familiar scene which many commuters can easily relate to. For me the first shot said it all; this is a man fed up with the dull, mundane and repetitive cycle of life – he wakes up, he catches the train, he gets to work, he catches the train back, he arrives back home and he goes to sleep. In other words he secretly yearns for something exciting to spice up his life. And who can blame him – don’t we all wish for something a little interesting to occur on that Monday morning commute?
Perfecting timing then to introduce the blonde bombshell that is Smith’s character, Sally, a health centre manager and divorcee who is engaged to a baby-making fanatic. Despite the differences between Carl and Sally they share one thing; both are trapped in the rut of reality, like hamsters constantly going around a wheel. They are bored, miserable and on the verge of crumbling from daily stresses. The biggest stress of all being the commute. It’s ironic that the thing they hate most, eventually becomes the thing they live for. After an argument over a seat, an apology and a chat, they begin to laugh – suddenly the stress seems to melt away. The chemistry soon becomes palpable between them. And just as swiftly as the suburban trees fade to urban buildings out of the train window, Sally and Carl begin to fall in love. Is this not just a little bit predictable? The programme started chugging along slowly and now it’s starting to zoom down the tired tracks of cliché. Before you know it they’ll be booking a hotel room…
Soon enough Carl gets membership at Sally’s gym and so commences the trajectory to their affair. They spend more and more time with each other and lie about their whereabouts to their partners, consequently both of their relationships begin sliding downhill. Colman suspects the worse. Carl ultimately has the most to lose; a loving wife and family, in contrast Sally is looking for a one-way ticket out of her failing engagement to Mr Muscle. She is scared of commitment because of her previous marriage disaster, while Carl simply craves passion. Now instead of dreading that 7.39 commute they can’t wait – Carl even gets up before his alarm!
Then the inevitable happens. A train strike. They can’t get back home. Soooo… they book a hotel. They share a room (because it’s cheaper). The tip of the iceberg is when Carl’s wife calls to check on him: “Where are you staying?” “Just some cheap hostel” he says standing in the posh lobby on a floor polished to perfection and a chandelier hanging overhead, as waiters walk past dressed in black tie carrying platters of canapés. The first of many big, fat, juicy lies. Later, Sally asks Carl “Are we about to make a mistake?” and he replies “I don’t care”, thus representing his desire for rebellion from his monotonous life. They’re like two restless teenagers driven mad by lust. Finally the episode concludes with a close up of their hands entwined, as the lift takes them up to the bedroom – quite the antithesis to the opening shot. I’m pretty certain anyone could work out what ensued in the second episode.
This programme contains some brilliant acting, a believable (but not that exciting) plot and raises some interesting issues (is Sally just using Carl to get out of her relationship? Are commuters really that miserable?), but I have a major quarrel: it was just too dull and utterly predictable. Perhaps the banality of it was due to the fact that it was portraying dull, dismal and depressing lives – that close up of a light on the ceiling said it all. Or maybe Nicholls is just too obsessed with turning the ordinary into accessible chick-lit. This series has divided many critics – some (mostly men) say that it’s good to show a modern fairy-tale in which the Prince Charming who saves Sleeping Beauty from a dull marriage of (many) babies and (lots of) weight lifting, is an old, grey, scraggly bearded, middle class, middle-aged man. Way to beat stereotypes! On the other hand, some critics (mostly women) argue that this is simply a male fantasy. In my opinion all the series needed was a faster pace, a couple of subplots and a great big twist at the end – et voila! – then it would have been far less… well… dull.