Normal People review: A rites of passage show that is far from normal

Normal People - Marianne (DAISY EDGAR JONES), Connell (PAUL MESCAL)Normal People - Marianne (DAISY EDGAR JONES), Connell (PAUL MESCAL)
Normal People - Marianne (DAISY EDGAR JONES), Connell (PAUL MESCAL)
Most coming-of-age shows are thrill-rides of lust, hedonism and starter-level depravity and indeed many end up visiting theme parks with rides called Insanity or Pure Mad Mental or whatever.

The Inbetweeners was played for laughs, Euphoria for dark and dangerous excitement and Sex Education with a title like that doesn’t need any explanation at all.

Normal People (BBC1) is nothing like them. While the others were filmed in zazzy day-glo colours, the much-anticipated dramatisation of Sally Rooney’s publishing sensation is pastel pale, the grey of the school uniform being the dominant shade.

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There are no jokes. Indeed there were many scenes in the double-bill opener when no one said anything. At such moments we had to rely on the eye movements of Marianne, the heroine, for what passed for drama and action.

Will there be a riotous house-party at some point in Normal People’s remaining ten episodes - Technicolor yawning in the rose bushes and shagging on the pile of coats - which of course is a staple of such shows? Already it seems unlikely. And I think it’s a safe bet there will be no visits to an amusement park. More likely lots of heavy-duty tutorials at uni.

But Normal People is still brilliant. It is beautifully shot and acted. It says loads about young love, not least in those awkward, agonising silences. Grey may govern here but there are fifty shades of it, possibly more. How many of us watching last night will have smiled or squirmed or maybe even commanded Facebook to delve right back into our own angsty, fumbly teenhoods as the two young lovers began their tentative mating dance? How many recognised themselves in the scenes in the lockers corridor: has he/she even noticed me? Does he/she fancy me? Why the heck is he/she talking to him/her? What’s everyone sniggering about?

And talking of Facebook, Normal People doesn’t. Yoof on TV are always on their phones. Text messages are flashed on screen to propel their stories. Not here. We’re in rural Ireland, not that long ago, though it could be further back in time. There’s a classical quality to Rooney’s writing; the Irish commentator, Fintan O’Toole, says she reminds him of Chekov. Meanwhile Sarah Jessica Parker and Lena

Dunham rave about “the great millennial novelist”.

Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal are our protagonists and both are superb - so much so that whatever else they do in their careers they will always be reminded of the fact they were once Marianne and Connell.

She lives in a grand house where his mother works as a cleaner so there’s social status to be negotiated as well as school status: he’s immensely popular, the star of the Gaelic football team, and she has no friends and is taunted by both boys and girls.

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Connell is no slouch in class but Marianne is super-bright. She storms out of a lesson after being pulled up by the teacher for staring out the window at the trees, complaining to Connell later: “I object to every thought or feeling of mine being policed like we are in some authoritarian fantasy.” (This perfectly chimes, by the way, with Rooney’s own experiences of the teaching profession: “The idea that these adults who were just random people were allowed to tell me what to do all day … fundamentally I do not get that”).

At that moment we could have joined the gaggle by the lockers in the teasing of Marianne but something bad or sad or both has happened in that big house. It’s mentioned on the second page of the book but has been kept back for now. The original work has devotees who’re evangelical about it but surely they approve of the dramatisation.

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Millennials get a bad press: they’re entitled, lazy, scared of hard work or even just making the next step. That’s not Marianne. At one point - this was just before they very sweetly and comically and tenderly fell into bed together for the first time - she told Connell: “You never give an opinion about anything - ever.” He replied: “You just always know what you think.”

Then, after a very Normal People pause, he added: “I like that.”

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