I have been watching Prisoners Wives, an austere, relentlessly nihilistic (it's set in Sheffield) BBC drama that's just finished its second series and feels awfully right for the Narnian times we are currently living in - always recession and never summer.
Our last decade had Footballers Wive$ - a campy soap for the gaudier good times. It reflected the consumerist nonsense of New Labour gurus hanging out on celebrity yachts and was as bubbly and vacuous as a glass of warm Chardonnay (which was what one of the characters was actually called). It was blingtastic nonsense - although I watched every episode all I can remember about it is Tanya Turner's talon-like painted nails scraping down the back of her latest man, possibly on a private jet. Oh, and Joan Collins was wheeled out towards the end, threatening to send someone old enough to be her great-great-great grandson back to the favelas. The title always irritated me due to its lack of apostrophes - even one in the wrong place would have at least shown they'd tried, and the awful American dollar sign that they replaced the final s with. I guess Footballers Wive£ wouldn't have worked.
I don't like the title of Prisoners Wives either - what it is with these shows that position women as appendages to men? Can you imagine Footballers Husbands or Prisoners Husbands or even Ballerinas Husbands - not on prime time at least, although I may have just invented a niche market.
So despite my mother urging me to watch PW, I refused until one of those evenings when I forgot to turn the tv off and it kind of just took over my evening. And it is strangely compelling, drawing you in with its bleak morality tales of fallen men and the women who love them. It is pure Dickens in other words.
The Queen of Prisoners Wives is brassy Franny, played by Polly Walker (who has previously done wicked women in Rome and Caprica). At the start of the series she is a ghastly nouveau riche, living in an enormous McMansion, and whiling away the lonely hours with pilates and spinning classes. Pedalling on a bike that's going nowhere - it's a METAPHOR you see. Except all the money is from her husband's gangster activities and bailiffs soon banish her back to the council estate from whence she came. She manages to keep up a tempestuous relationship with her awful husband Paul (one of those names that only men in their 40s now have). One minute she's flashing her lack of knickers at him, the next they're on the verge of breaking up. Or else he's arranging to use her as the blood-spattered pawn when assassinating one of his rival gang bosses. Franny feels like a reject from Footballers Wives - I suspect her and Tanya Turner went to the same tanning salon, although Franny has depths and her zingers are defence mechanisms to obscure the emptiness of her life and her disappointment at all the bad choices she's made.
On the other hand, class-wise, Harriet is the real deal - a proper dotty upper-middle, incredibly nervy and awkward and well-meaning and what Americans think of when they think of British people. She shopped her son to the police and the idea of visiting him in prison is so awful that she can't even get out of the car in the first episode but just sits there babbling to her faithful dog Basil. Her ungrateful, not-all-there son has a tough time in prison, and there is a brutally hilarious episode where Harriet has to smuggle drugs in so he won't get beaten up. Every stage of this insane journey is filled with crushing embarrassment - from Harriet unsuccessfully trying to score at the local rough council estate (the yobs just laugh at her and steal her money), to researching how to smuggle drugs inside her own body (opening a condom on a banana and then throwing the banana in the bin in disgust), to her frenzied panic with the sniffer dog and the inevitable strip search when it all goes horribly, horribly wrong.
And there is underclass Louisa, who deals drugs so she can get her family out of the ghetto, and keeps all the drug money inside a hole in the settee in her council flat. Her husband kindly took the rap for her and they're lying to their young son and pretending that Daddy's doing top secret work during the prison visits. You know the little boy's going to end up in care before the end. Natalie Gavin, the young actress who plays Louisa is amazing, and in every scene that she is in I end up crying like a baby.
There is a fourth character, Gemma (all Bambi-eyes and pregnancy bump) who comes to realise that her lovely husband isn't actually innocent at all, but in fact is running an illegal sweat shop full of Chinese illegal immigrants out of a shipping container, and has a side-interest in murdering people. During increasingly fraught prison visits, the couple trade bluffs and lies, until I'm completely confused about who believes who anymore. I haven't seen the last episode yet, but I suspect the prison will explode and everyone will die. I can't wait to watch series 2.