If you thought that life crises were the privilege of the middle-aged then you never saw the 32 episodes of BBC2's twenty-something series that ran the gamut of human emotions in the frenetic professional, stormy, and complexly intertwined personal lives of five fast track young solicitors sharing a house in London.
With a boldness and honesty which was refreshing in its realistic use of language and direct examination of such taboo subjects as drug-taking, homosexuality and rampant sexuality among the more youthful strata of the professional classes, This Life quickly reached something of a cult status, much to the embarrassment of the BBC. With a boldness and honesty which was refreshing the series adult, realistic scripts were complimented and further enhanced by the adoption of the nervous, jerky, hand-held camera work which had become the instantly recognisable trademark of hit US detective series, NYPD Blue.
The series was the brainchild of BBC2 controller Michael Jackson and was developed by award winning producer Tony Garnett and writer and Amy Jenkins, (the then 29 year old daughter of the late Roy Jenkins, MP). "I wanted to give a voice to my generation, because they've never had one on television," explained Jenkins. "We decided there would be certain themes to This Life. We wanted to reflect that this generation is the first who can't expect to do better than their parents; who can't afford to buy property; who find it very hard to get a job; and who are not threatened by casual drug use. There's a new cynicism - or reality - about relationships because so many of us have seen our parents split up. This Life isn't about these issues, but they are there in the background."
In common with her characters, Amy had studied law at college, before becoming a trainee solicitor in a City law firm, a post she resigned from after a year to pursue her dream of becoming a writer. To pay the bills, she sold sweaters in a London market, and organized nightclub 'rave' nights. It was her personal experiences which were to ultimately form the foundation for the authenticity of her scripting for the series, as she explained: "This Life isn't a legal show - it's about the characters, their friendships, their relationships and the way they feel and behave at work. We find out how they handle their cases and what they learn about themselves when doing it - we never go into the courtroom because the process is a human one, rather than a legal one. Our five main characters may be lawyers and professionals, but they're not afraid to swear, take drugs, have lots of sex and watch lots of football. They're into escaping, but they're also into finding themselves - they read self-help books, they're interested in 'working at' relationships and a couple of them get into therapy."
By the final episode of the first series, This Life had succeeded in appealing to a much broader viewing audience than originally expected, and when the second series was broadcast in 1997 it was doubled to 22 episodes in reflection of the show's across-the-board appeal. But with the higher profile and larger audiences came more increased press coverage. Not all of it positive by any stretch of the imagination: The series was accused of 'the destruction of young minds' and worst of all, more so than the drugs and booze the Daily Mail was appalled by the 'simulated sex between homosexuals' Only the Financial Times decided that the series 'shows young people behaving as they actually do behave'
Ultimately, the BBC announced that it wasn't going to make a third series of This Life leaving the media to respond with sharply divided opinions. The more traditional newspapers, which had already savagely criticised the show's explicit sex, bad language and relaxed, accepting attitude to drug abuse heartily applauded the decision. But the more than four million viewers who had tuned in religiously were appalled by the news. To them many of the unresolved plot threads which had been left untied at the culmination of series two would now never be satisfactorily answered? But despite passionate lobbying and entreaties the BBC remained unmoved. The series, they unconvincingly claimed, had simply reached the end of its natural life, and in keeping with its consistent adherence to realism that was exactly how This Life departed the nation's screens; with unanswered questions and fates left hanging maddeningly in the balance.
This Life benefited from first-rate writing and production, an astonishingly talented and perfectly in-tune young ensemble cast and a fanatically loyal and devoted following and stands out unquestionably as one of the most satisfying, relevant and adventurous British drama series of the final decade of twentieth century television.
Published on February 6th, 2019. Written by SRH & Laurence Marcus (2000) for Television Heaven.