BBC2’s latest original standalone drama is The Night Watch, an adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel (the author behind the broadcaster’s previous titillation-fest Tipping the Velvet – emphasis on the ‘tit’) looking at the intertwining lives, relationships and sexual desires of a group of people through the end to the beginning of the London Blitz from 1947 to 1941. I deliberately place the dates in descending chronological order as that’s how we are introduced to the characters, at the end of their story. The narrative then travels back in time first to 1943 and then to 1941 to gradually unveil the back story and reveal the genesis of how their lives evolved. All without a Tardis in sight.
Post-war England is succinctly captured and the feeling of a country that now lacks purpose and a single common enemy is palpable. With nothing truly uniting them anymore, we see the dying embers of relationships, with the pretty but troubled Viv (Marchlands‘ Jodie Whittaker) seemingly becoming detached from her liaison with married solider Reggie, the strained connection between writer Julia (Anna Wilson-Jones of Hotel Babylon fame) and her younger and needy lover Helen (Claire Foy from Little Dorrit), the tom-boyish Kay (Bleak House’s Anna Maxwell Martin) wandering the streets of the city isolated and alone and Viv’s brother Duncan (Harry Treadaway from….nothing I’ve ever heard of) who has become estranged from his family after being released from prison.
By any normal standards this would be a well-acted, if predictable, wartime drama, however the genre is given a new lease of life by utilising flashbacks. The clever conceit is that as the story unfolds (or de-folds – I’m not quite sure how to put it) we learn that the fear and danger incited by the London bombings which drives the protagonists to undertake many of the decisions they make is completely unfounded, as we know they all survive. Also by removing the threat of death, it allows you to focus on the intricate details of the tale as a viewer. This is a testament to what a strong piece of drama this is, as most shows would use imminent danger to drive the narrative.
Unlike the adaptation of Tipping the Velvet, which courted more attention for its explicit lesbian ‘romps’ (to use a now defunct tabloid’s phrasing) than its credibility as a drama, The Night Watch manages to make the same-sex relations understated, concentrating more on romance than bonking. Duncan’s yearning for his cell mate is both equally touching and heartbreaking in its unrequited-ness, while Helen’s continuing doe-eyed devotion but obvious insecurity in the face of an ambivalent Julia is…well actually you just want to shake the doe eyes out of her pretty little head.
The production of the programme is fantastic and grand in scope, with the Blitz setting appropriately dour, eerie and threatening. The wide shots of London ablaze after an air raid are particularly effecting and the visceral aftermath of the bombs aren’t shied away from, with grieving families searching through rubble and a policeman vomiting at the discovery of a dead child.
Overall this a an engrossing, superbly acted piece of prime time drama with a twist and well worth investing the feature-length running time.