Gender balance seeps into BBC drama Normal People

At last a TV show where it’s not just the woman taking her clothes off: Gender balance seeps into BBC drama Normal People, says Elizabeth Day – who’s never seen such respectful yet sensual sex portrayed on screen

I came to Normal People, the television drama everyone else seemed to be talking about, with low expectations. I had read the original Sally Rooney novel last year, and I had liked it, albeit not as much as her previous book, Conversations With Friends. 

This is a minority opinion. I also had the slight bitterness of being an older female novelist whose work had never garnered the ecstatic attention of Rooney’s deliberately flat, millennial prose. 

Her novels were full of reported speech and caustic observation, but if you had to describe what actually happened in them, you’d be hard-pressed to keep going beyond a couple of sentences. 

This is not a criticism: Rooney is a brilliant writer and some of the best novels of all time are driven by intense character study rather than constant pageturning action. Normal People was that rare thing – a commercial and critical hit. 

Daisy Edgar-Jones as Marianne and Paul Mescal as Connell in the BBC Three adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People

It was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and named Waterstone’s Book of the Year in 2018. As good as it was, I couldn’t understand how anyone could turn a novel in which a boy and a girl fall in love but fail to communicate into a 12-part television series. 

Twelve parts! The book itself was only 266 pages long. When the BBC adapted Tolstoy’s 1,255-page classic War and Peace in 2016, it barely merited six episodes. 

So I ignored Normal People for a while. But then the WhatsApp messages started pinging: friend after friend breathlessly asking whether I’d seen it and claiming it was the best thing on television. 

Still, I put off watching it. It looked a bit too trendy and young for me in the trailers: all wide-lipped close-ups and earnest music and beautiful people running through darkened streets. 

But then it was lockdown, and there wasn’t much else to do in the evenings other than examining my own fingernails, so finally I sat down and pressed play. And here’s the thing: it’s phenomenal. 

So brilliant, in fact, that I forgot to be annoyed that I’d been proven wrong and set about gushing about Normal People to anyone who would listen. At first, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why it’s so good. 

The script, co-written by Rooney with Mark O’Rowe and Alice Birch, is understated. The dialogue between the two protagonists, Marianne and Connell, often consists more of ‘hmm’ and ‘huh’ and sporadic mild grunting than actual words. 

Sentences are short and cut off and spoken over. Connell’s silver necklace does a lot of excellent Method work (so much so, that it now has its own Instagram fan account). 

Daisy Edgar-Jones as Marianne and Paul Mescal as Connell in the BBC Three adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People

As with the book, nothing much happens. Marianne, played by Daisy EdgarJones, and Connell, played by Paul Mescal, are students at the same school when they embark on an affair that Connell, who is popular and sporty, chooses to keep secret from his friends. 

Marianne, who is spiky and clever and shunned by her classmates, comes from a wealthier but dysfunctional family: her abusive father died some years earlier and her mother now employs Connell’s mother as a cleaning lady. 

Marianne and Connell’s relationship is initially stymied by their inability to communicate clearly because they are both terrified in different ways of being vulnerable and revealing their truest selves.

And yet they can only ever be their truest selves with each other. It is the waxing and waning of this impossible tension that keeps our attention over the years and episodes that follow. 

So yes, nothing much happens. But at the same time, everything happens because Normal People is all about our need to be understood. It is about alienation and connection. And in lockdown it is the perfect drama. 

Its brilliance lies not only in the exquisite direction by Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald, and the astonishing performance of the two hitherto unknown lead actors who seem to be able to portray the rich inte rior lives of their characters with the tiniest of gestures – the wiping of an eye, the crinkle of a smile – but in its very normality. 

It is a story we can all relate to. We all have our memories of first love. We have all experienced moments of being the outsider. We have all been misunderstood in relationships. 

Paul Mescal has won plenty of fans for his role as Connell in Normal People

We have all been normal people, trying to do our best. And this for me is the beauty of it: for years, it feels as though TV commissioners have been feeding us a diet of high-concept thrillers featuring sociopaths and violent female assassins and alcohol-dependent CIA agents with unravelling personal lives and complicated back stories.

In the ceaseless quest for original content, we’ve forgotten the deep pleasures of exploring the mundane. There is beauty in the everyday, and that is why Normal People appeals to all age groups despite being a story of young love. 

Also, each episode is only 30 minutes long and leaves you wanting more. Most modern TV dramas get that wrong, ponderously stretching out storylines for hours on end, so that continuing to watch feels like a major commitment. 

Normal People already knows it’s good, and doesn’t need to go on about it. Then, of course, there’s the sex. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such respectful yet sensual sex portrayed on screen. 

The scene where Marianne loses her virginity is a lesson in consent and should be watched by all parents with teenagers (if they can get over the inevitable squirming embarrassment) because it shows how loving sex should be. 

The way these particular scenes are filmed is also startlingly equitable because male and female nudity is given equal space. 

I realised while watching how rare that is; how usually the male gaze is taken as the default and female nudity is the norm. It’s a gender balance that seeps into the rest of the drama. 

Paul Mescal imbues the character of Connell with such sensitivity that one of the most moving scenes is between him and a therapist discussing male depression. 

Marianne’s bouts of emotional coldness and her refusal to be likeable are characteristics more often associated with male protagonists, but Daisy EdgarJones’s subtle, clever performance makes her both understandable and loveable.

(And for someone who grew up in North London, Edgar-Jones’s Irish accent is faultless.) Perhaps Marianne spoke to me particularly because I, too, was a weird, unpopular teenager at school in Ireland, mistrusted by classmates for my English accent and my terrible taste in clothes. 

I wish I had possessed Marianne’s chutzpah and her ability to stand up for herself, but I didn’t. I never had an illicit fling with the popular boy I fancied and I changed to an all-girls school in my third year. 

Normal People offered me an alternative ending. Maybe it offers an alternative script to all of us who have been replaying our own past relationships during the long hours of lockdown. 

So yes, it really is the best thing on television. Watch it for the acting, the story, the script, the sex, the direction and, of course, for Connell’s silver chain. But most of all watch it to understand and celebrate the profound meaning of other people’s normal lives – and our own. 

Source: Read Full Article