Review: The Outcast, Laurence Llewelyn Bowen, Married at First Sight

The word ‘unfilmable,’ is usually ascribed to huge, multi-stranded novels containing metaphysics and multitudes. It is generally followed by the revelation that somehow, someone has filmed it. You less often hear the phrase ‘They thought it couldn’t be filmed, and knock me down with a ticklestick if they weren’t right,’ but in the case of The Outcast, its subject matter was so perfectly suited to a novel, and so completely antithetical to three hours of screen time, that it probably shouldn’t have been made in to a TV show at all.

It was set after the Second World War and it told the story of a boy called Lewis. The best times of his life had been spent while dad was fighting in Africa and he had his beloved mother all to himself. Then stern, moustachioed paterfamilias (Greg Wise) came back and greeted his young son with all the warmth of a tax demand. At least Lewis had mummy – until she drowned in a lake, right in front of him, framed underwater in an everlasting Munchian scream in his young mind.

And then things took a turn for the worse. Trauma therapy hadn’t been invented in the 40s so instead Lewis was packed off to boarding school, which as we all know is the perfect place to treat emotional trauma, and things spiralled from there.

The problem was that this spiralling, bar the odd lashing out and an incident with a forearm and a cut-throat razor, was internal. In a novel, inner turmoil can be dramatic in itself – and the many fans of Sadie Jones’s source book suggest that The Outcast is a riveting read. Jones herself adapted the screenplay, but she left George Mackay, who played the adolescent Lewis, an awful lot to do. Effectively he had to channel a largely silent roiling rage for 90 minutes. That translated as 90 minutes of Mackay looking like he was sucking on a particularly fiery chili while holding a pencil under his chin.

It was, frankly, a blessed relief when Lewis was allowed to vent his inner angst and burn down a church: the lack of tension was killing me.

Had this been a novel, we might have followed Lewis’s inner monologue in words, but without a voiceover – and nobody likes a voiceover – TV is generally reliant on performance or visual effects to intimate what someone is thinking. The visual effects here were strong, but the performance mistook brooding for stiltedness. Mackay has excelled in roles like Pride and Sunshine on Leith in which he is the wide-eyed naïf, whereas this looks like an attempt for him to break in to damaged tough guys and leading men. It’s probably not his fault that he floundered – he had very little to do in this first hour other than simmer and pout, like a teenager who’d read some Nietzsche and then failed to get My Chemical Romance tickets on the very same day.

If Mackay wants some schooling in the art of damaged men then he could do worse than study Laurence Llewelyn Bowen, a man who has been through the school of hard knocks, albeit via the medium of soft furnishings.

Laurence Llewellyn Bowen: Cracking China followed Bowen – who, you’ll be amazed to learn is now down on his uppers and flogging rococo tat from above a shop in Cirencester – as he attempted one last throw of the dice by launching his range of chintzy homewares on an unsuspecting, and roundly uninterested China.

But really this documentary was just the coda to what is becoming a quite familiar celebrity regurgitation process. LLB, as he calls himself, was built up as a star on programmes like Home Front in the 90s, where we were asked to admire his flair and expertise. Then he was spat out as a joke once someone decided his fashions were out of fashion and, in actual fact, he didn’t have any flair or expertise in the first place. Now he is being ground down to a pulp of moustache wax and big hair for our entertainment in a comeback that was, we may assume, initiated by the need to make a funny television programme about his comeback.

It would all be a little tawdry, were it not draped in the usual cloak of smothering irony. Like David Hasslehoff or Keith Chegwin, both also currently on TV in one guise or another, LLB understands his status as fallen icon and he plays up to it. He grins at his potential Chinese saviours and ruffles his Cocker Spaniel bouffon – and then winks at the camera, saying, “They’ve got absolutely no clue who I am!” The last chance saloon is thus made to seem a great place to be, and if LLB ends up with a daytime show on the back of it, everyone’s a winner.

Two episodes in to Married at First Sight, Channel 4’s attempt at arranging marriages by science and then not letting the bride and groom meet until their wedding day, and we have learned two things. One: this is a very stupid way of finding a life partner. And two: it is not that much more stupid than the way most people find their life partner. (To whit: get drunk, snog, move in to save rent, notice that all of your friends have got hitched already so there’s no one left to get drunk and snog with and conclude that in light of all this a party and a set of Le Crueset cookware wouldn’t be such a bad thing).

Married at First Sight is a three parter, and fun though it is, two episodes in we still haven’t got on to the nub of ‘compatibility’ – it’s not about whether you both like cycling or smoothies, it’s about which way round the loo roll should go, or whether you can bear the fact your husband always turns the lights off before you’ve left the room (that one from my wife). I imagine they’re avoiding this because, unlike the ceremony and the honeymoon, the long and winding road that constitutes most people’s marriages would be tedious as mud for anyone else to have to wade through. It’s like any endurance sport – plenty of willing participants but little fun for spectators.

Published by Benji

Writer, Journalist, Critic

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