Aidan Smith's TV review: Conversations with Friends, Katherine Parkinson's Aussie sex comedy Spreadsheet and Floodlights

She likes the “impermanence” of poetry read out aloud. The idea of words on the page that could remain in existence forever makes her feel “sick”.

He needs words on the page, in a theatre script, explaining: “There’s a certainty to them, knowing what’s coming next, what to say.”

But in Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends (BBC3), Frances the student, who recites her feminist verse in clubs and Nick the actor, currently appearing in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, are drawn to each other by being the socially awkward ones in their respective relationships and they begin an affair.

Hide Ad

Rooney’s Normal People was a lockdown smash. Its quietness and stillness chimed with our own situation, trapped indoors. The depiction of young love, carefree summers and lives stretching out ahead made us nostalgic because the future was so uncertain and seemed in peril. Could this work post-Covid?

Gerard Kearns in Floodlights.Gerard Kearns in Floodlights.
Gerard Kearns in Floodlights.

Just about. And this, despite so many echoes of the earlier work, although the books were written the other way around. These include: daydreaming, pining, not saying what one means, staring out of the window, sleeping, post-exam partying, earnest discussions about art, politics and how marriage is bunk, Dublin, rural Ireland and a sunny foreign location, mournful piano at all times – a lot of millennial angst.

Frances (Alison Oliver) and Bobbi (Sasha Lane) technically aren’t a couple anymore, though the performance poetry is a joint effort and they’re rarely seen apart, so you wonder if they might get back together. That is, until they fall under the spell of power couple Nick (Joe Alwyn) and his writer wife Melissa (Jemima Kirke).

A New Yorker, Bobbi is sassy, but then nearly everyone’s that next to Frances. Bobbi develops a crush on Melissa who, Frances suspects, is a bit of a phoney. She only has eyes for Nick, although that’s a misnomer as she does everything to avoid his gaze. Did she like his play? Frances stumbles over her words then says: “I’ll go home and craft you an email. It will be full of compliments and complete sentences. But won’t require us to make eye contact.”

Before long they’re managing more than that. There’s been so much mumbling between the pair that we’re absolutely gagging for a love scene, which doesn’t disappoint. It’s beautifully authentic and as intense as the deep, dark Farrow & Ball blue on the bedroom walls (Midnight Ink, I think). Plus, Frances and Nick still don’t have to properly converse and we can watch and enjoy free from our own self-consciousness, because the shagging in Normal People during the pandemic when everyone was cooped up together was a bit squirmy in many living-rooms.

Alison Oliver and Joe Alwyn in Conversations with FriendsAlison Oliver and Joe Alwyn in Conversations with Friends
Alison Oliver and Joe Alwyn in Conversations with Friends

The new Channel 4 comedy Spreadsheet, imported from Australia, doesn’t waste any time with mounting sexual tension. It gets on with the mounting in the opening scene.

Hide Ad

Katherine Parkinson is Lauren, a lawyer and divorced mother of two girls who’s constantly on the pull. So much so she needs the spreadsheet of the title, managed by work colleague Alex (Rowan Witt), so she knows who she’s seeing, and doing, when.

It’s got to be no-strings. First up is Jason. Actually no, this is Andy, but Lauren forgets his name right after their entanglement in a theatre car park is brought to an abrupt halt by the house emptying. “Shall we move this back to my place?” he says hopefully. “What for?” she replies. Still, he rates “seven for effort” on the spreadsheet.

Hide Ad

You suspect there’s going to be quite a lot of interrupted coitus, what with Lauren’s other workmates being so nosey, the dates being so needy, her ex-husband being a twit, the kids’ school projects requiring her assistance and the teachers unsurprisingly taking a dim view of condoms turning up in the Show & Tell. But even if Spreadsheet becomes pretty much a one-joke show it’s made a good start.

Katherine Parkinson in SpreadsheetKatherine Parkinson in Spreadsheet
Katherine Parkinson in Spreadsheet

Apologies for the juddering gear-change, but next up is Floodlights (BBC2), which any given week is going to make most TV seem frivolous in comparison. I can’t think of a more difficult watch in recent times, but that’s frivolous, too. More importantly, how did Andy Woodward cope, witnessing the horror unfold?

He’s the professional footballer-turned-whistleblower, who went public with the appalling sexual abuse suffered at the hands of his youth coach Barry Bennell. Within days, more than 100 other victims came forward and in 2018 Bennell was jailed for 34 years.

The scandal rocked football and hastened stricter laws to protect children – too late for Woodward, who was groomed by Bennell, the self-styled “star-maker” boasting of having sent more youngsters to the senior game than any of his rival coaches.

Now, you and I might think, if we were actors, that we’d never want to portray such a monster. But we’re not David Tennant (who played Denis Nilsen) or Steve Coogan (upcoming as Jimmy Savile) and Jonas Armstrong dons a bubble-perm wig and oozes oily persuasiveness to charm Armstrong’s mum and dad who consent to the first of many “sleepovers”.

Max Fletcher is young Andy, a sweet lad who’s dreamy-eyed about following in the footsteps of one of the top players who adorn his bedroom wall, but if he doesn’t do what Bennell wants, he’s dropped from the team. These scenes are appalling and will cause parents of child prodigies to shudder, even with the improved safeguards. And Gerard Kearns is haunted and heart-breaking as Woodward when the football’s over and, very nearly after a suicide bid, his life with it.



Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.