The challenge of socially distanced love scenes on TV - Aidan Smith

It was when the classical composer took a break from his unfinished symphony to make beautiful music with the conductor atop a 1950 Erard baby grand that my wife said: “They’re not exactly Connell and Marianne, are they?”

Marianne and  Connell in more normal times
Marianne and Connell in more normal times

This was Philharmonia (Channel 4) but it could have been anything and from now on it will be everything. Every drama with big clinches, steamy collisions and jiggy grappling must stand next to Normal People and its horny young lovers and hope not to droop.

As if that isn’t tough enough, TV is facing a sex crisis. Shows with love scenes filmed pre-Covid will eventually dry up. The social distancing required in new productions is already forcing producers to look to actor-couples who’ve shared Marmite jars in real life, among other things. Meanwhile for some watching and looking for raunch there’s the new threat of a “Don’t try-this-at-home” warning, with the mooted sex police a sting in the lockdown tail.

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I wanted Boris Johnson’s bonk bobbies to burst in on Philharmonia’s Peter and Helene. For one thing, to protect the piano. For another, they were just being silly. But I suppose, too, they were just being French, similar to when they moved to the bed and made a tent out of the sheets.

We’re in Paris where Helene (Marie-Sophie Ferdane, looking a wee bit like Francoise Hardy’s big sister) has replaced a conductor who dropped down dead during the overture. Not for nothing does this orchestra carry the nickname “maestro killer”. They bitch, sulk, stage walkouts and stick the pages of Helene’s score together. The French horn player calls her an “undeserving quack”, an insult which has probably been lost in translation, but this one has an extra incentive to see her fail: she’s shagging Peter.

He’s a perisher – Connell could take him in a fight, no problem, with one hand twiddling the neck-chain that causes women, my better half included, to swoon – but I’ve rather fallen for Helene in this flouncy, nutty, soapy affair. She packs a pistol in her Hermes handbag and I’m hoping to see her take out the entire string section at the next hint of mutiny.

Philharmonia comes into that Covid-sanctioned category of hypnotic hokum – and so does Snowpiercer. Did you watch Into the Night like I suggested? This drama, also on Netflix, is similar in that it’s aiming for post-apocalyptic, in-transit thrills. Instead of a plane trying to outrun the sun, a 1,001-carriage train must circumnavigate the planet continuously after an attempt to reverse global warming created a new ice age, wiping out everyone else.

Maybe you saw the original movie. If so, congratulate yourself for knowing about Bong Joon-ho before he directed the Oscar-laden Parasite. Like the latter film, Snowpiercer is much concerned with class as it’s strictly demarcated on the train.

In super-duper upper class, sushi is brought to the nobby, snobby tables direct from the aquarium. If there’s a problem in the sauna – “The Europeans are fat-shaming again” – then lovely Jennifer Connelly, head of hospitality, deals with it.

Right down the far end are a mad-eyed bunch of desperate folk in rags who scrambled aboard at the start of the endless journey. Called the Tailies, they’re kept alive – just – with cubes of protein in black jelly form. Sterilising the women ensures their numbers stay down. The train may be an ark from where civilisation will hopefully rise again, but the strawberries in one of the 130 greenhouse cars are better looked after than this lot.

A former detective is plucked from the rabble to solve a murder further up the train. He’s given an insight into life beyond car No 1,001: the permanent sex parties in a carriage apparently designed by Hieronymus Bosch and the tomato soup available in third class. Meanwhile the Tailies, like the orchestra in Philharmonia, are revolting. They obviously fancy the soup.

Maybe I wouldn’t normally watch shows like Snowpiercer and Philharmonia but, like the well-thumbed paperbacks left behind in the holiday home offering the only respite from incessant rain, they seem to work in these strange times. The set-ups and settings intrigue and who cares about the slightly trashy element? They’re like comfort food. And what’s normal anyway? I think I’ve forgotten.

Comedians: Home Alone (BBC2) points up the challenge comics on TV face from social media: Twitter is quicker and often funnier. Best of the bunch was Rhys James: “If someone says they set the bar high at limbo it’s really hard to tell if they’re good or bad.”

There are more laughs in The Other One (BBC1) where a shock bigamy revelation has thrown together secret sisters, both called Cathy. One is rather square and the other, revealing she’s single, says: “I’ve just completed Tinder so I’m taking a bit of a breather.”


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