AIRDATE: Tuesday 8 April 2003 on Channel 4
Episode 1 (of 3)
40 is a watershed in all our lives, the point when our youth is finally deemed to be over. Channel 4’s powerful new three-part drama, penned by the leading writer Bryan Elsley (The Young Person’s Guide to Becoming a Rock Star, The Crow Road, Nature Boy), focuses on a group of seven former school friends whose lives are undergoing seismic change as they hit that landmark age. All their seething emotions come to the boil as a school reunion approaches.
In this piece directed by David Moore (The Forsyte Saga, The Lakes), the not-very-magnificent seven played by Eddie Izzard, Joanne Whalley, Hugo Speer, Kerry Fox, Nimmy March, Mark Benton and Vincent Regan are intimately connected by a web of sexual and emotional secrets.
Provocative, explicit and unflinching, 40 addresses the pleasure and pain of committing misdemeanours – and the shocking consequences of owning up to them. But above all, this searing drama charts the hardest task of all: coming to terms with yourself.
Produced by Emma Burge (Ella and the Mothers) and Stewart Barlow (Rose and Maloney) and told through a complex “time slip” structure, the work was inspired by the fact that two years ago Elsley turned 40. This turning-point provided the writer with the opportunity to reflect on his life – and the idea for a striking drama.
“I took turning 40 quite badly,” recalls Elsley, who is currently scripting a series of Rose and Maloney. “But it made me realise how complicated my life and my friends’ lives had become. All of us had acquired a load of unexpected baggage. If you’d told us at the age of 22 that we’d be where we are now, we would have laughed in your face. But rather than becoming the conquerors of the universe we had all imagined we’d become, now we were all hanging on for grim death!
40 is a key time for everyone – it can easily feel like the beginning of the end. It’s also the age when men finally accept that they’re not going to become Premiership footballers. We’re supposed to be at our peak in our business, personal and emotional lives. The knowledge that we’re not can cause us to unravel.” Which 40 shows happening in the most spectacular fashion.
“So many people at 40 slide sideways into dubious sex and ancillary activities,” Elsley continues. “And it’s those ancillary activities that I find particularly fascinating. Every man of 40 has some kind of secret – usually associated with sex. That’s reflected in this drama.”
Charles Pattinson (The Lakes, North Square, Nicholas Nickleby, White Teeth, Sons and Lovers, Morvern Callar, Serious and Organised ), who executive produces 40 with George Faber, echoes this idea. “By the time they’re 40, all men have accumulated dark secrets which are theirs and theirs alone.”
40 is also the time when many people suddenly go off the rails, Pattinson continues. “Bryan is exploring the interior life of all the characters in this drama. 40 is the end of your youth and the time when your life is theoretically settled. That’s why it’s so depressing. You get this sense of losing your vitality.”
The executive producer points to the breakdown that Eddie Izzard’s character, Ralph, undergoes. “He has had huge success during his 20s and 30s. He’s been a charismatic powerhouse in both his career and his sex life. But at 40, he suddenly feels the power is deserting him. So he tries to reclaim a relationship from school and starts behaving dishonestly at work in order not to be perceived as losing his edge. He even starts injecting himself with testosterone. He realises how far away his youth has become and is desperately trying to hang on to it.”
Barlow chips in that 40 is so often a crisis point. “You’re staring mortality in the face and thinking ‘this is it’. You realise that you’re nearer the end than the beginning. You’ve been educated and after 20 years in a job, the rest of your life is mapped out for you. No longer can people say about you, ‘he’s got potential.’ There’s no avoiding it now – it’s time to deliver.
“There is also a sense that your parents may be about to die and that your children are now the future. You feel that the possibilities of the world have passed you by and you’ve been usurped.
“I was growing up in 1977, which was an amazing time. With punk, we felt revolution was at hand. We thought that life would never be the same again – anything seemed possible. But 20 years later, you realise that neither you nor the world has changed.”
Elsley takes up the theme. “At 40, people often attempt to throw off baggage and make sudden changes – and frequently they’re disastrous. The mid-life crisis is absolutely real – it’s really not nice to feel that you’ve had more than half your life. People try to laugh it off, but it’s very much there.”
In 40, it is the brilliant dramatic device of the school reunion that crystallises all these insecurities. “At this point of reassessing your life, you try to recapture your youth by going back to what you were,” Pattinson explains. “You’re meeting people who were once youthful and optimistic and seeing what has become of them. That’s a very potent idea for a drama.
“You hear stories about old boy and girlfriends who meet up through Friends Reunited because they can’t resist seeing what has happened and trying to find the spark of youth again. There is a sense of unfinished business, and in some cases it can lead to divorce. A lot of characters here are attempting to reconnect with that visceral sense of excitement. Look at Rob (played by Hugo Speer), trying to find it through rough sex.”
Burge adds that a school reunion is “a very unhealthy way of revisiting the past. We all have this compulsion to compare ourselves with our contemporaries. We are impelled by this ghoulish curiosity. The people who have been successful want to show off about it, while those who haven’t are bitter but still have an irresistible desire to find out what has happened to people they last saw 20 years ago.
“School is the most intense period of your life – the temptation is to try to feel those emotions as deeply again, to check you pulse and make sure you’re still alive. But there is a terrible danger that going back can do drastic things to people – that’s what happens here.
“There have been a lot of documentaries about these reunions, and they show that the moment people walk down the school drive, they can’t help reverting to type. So in 40, the character of Gregory (played by Mark Benton) has been a success in life. But the minute he steps back into the school environment, he is forced to revert to his childhood nickname of Tubby and once again feels on the outskirts of the group.”
Pattinson emphasises how delighted he is by the actors in 40. “We could not have got a better cast,” he beams. “None of the leads are regularly appearing on British TV. It’s a real treat to see such a fantastic group of actors working so well together. It gives the piece a genuine freshness.”
The executive producer goes on to laud David Moore, the director of 40 . “It’s an incredibly difficult piece to get to grips with, but we’d worked with David on The Lakes and knew he could deal with this sort of fractured narrative. David has really pulled it off. The drama feels real and visceral – he has elicited very authentic performances from the cast. All in all, he’s done a magnificent job!”
Pattinson closes by acknowledging that 40 is a dark story and praises Channel 4 for taking it on. “C4 is the only channel that could have made this show,” he says. “They have always been excited that 40 is tackling areas that are difficult. This piece is bound to make a huge impact.”
Barlow concludes by paying tribute to the strength of Elsley’s writing. “He has handled the complicated structure with real skill. It’s elliptical – over three hours, it cleverly sets up expectations and then subverts them. It underlines the rashness of taking hasty moral views. “But, most important of all, Bryan’s characters are motivated by real emotions. He doesn’t churn out rent-a-stories or say ‘let’s bring in a character here to pep up the plot.’ The story in 40 always springs from the characters – they always come first. This doesn’t feel like coffee-table drama; it feels very real.
“40 is like puberty – a huge turning point in your life. Only at 40, you don’t grow hair, you lose it! This drama tackles fascinating, fundamental and life-changing issues. It will be hard for viewers to ignore it.”
Director: David Moore
Producer: Stewart Barlow
Executive Producers: Charlie Pattinson, George Faber
Writer: Bryan Elsley
Production Company: Company Pictures production for Channel 4