BBC's Marriage: a real relationship drama

BBC's Marriage: a real relationship drama

By Shilpa Ganatra,
Wednesday, 24th August 2022
Nicola Walker and Sean Bean as Emma and Ian in Marriage (credit: BBC)
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The RTS lifts the lid on Stefan Golaszewski’s new series, Marriage, a bittersweet portrait of a couple who tied the knot 27 years ago

There’s nothing quite like an authentic slice-of-life drama to elicit a connection with viewers. Over the course of a well-crafted series that is rooted in realism, the audience is bound to empathise with its uncomfortable truths. Those familiar feelings, familiar failings.

We saw that in Catastrophe, which expertly depicted the ups and downs of a relationship after the gloss has gone. Or Together, which intimately documented a couple having to cope with the mundanity of life during lockdown while also facing a terrifying global pandemic. There are even examples without Sharon Horgan in them – in Normal People, it was the all-too-relatable unspoken tension between young students Marianne and Connell that gripped the nation.

But, so far, no UK series has drawn on what is arguably the most obvious context for realism: an everyday couple, 27 long and eventful years after they first said “I do”.

Marriage, created, written and directed by Stefan Golaszewski, whose credits include the RTS-award winning Mum, and produced by The Forge, aims to change that in the most compelling of ways.

The series follows the subtle interplay over the course of a few days as Ian, played by Sean Bean (twice an RTS acting award winner, for The Accused and Time), is made redundant from his job just as the career of his wife, Emma, played by Nicola Walker (The Split, Unforgotten), gains momentum.

“The format of drama now means that something has to happen at a certain point in each episode every week,” Walker pointed out at a recent RTS event, where she was joined by Golaszewski and Bean.

"A lot of the time, it’s just life lived. I have not seen that on television before."

“When I read these scripts, I thought, ‘here’s Stefan rejecting that pattern and writing about these two people in the most honest way’. Awful things have happened to them in their 27-year marriage. That isn’t where we meet them, but you do see the effect that has realistically in a long-term loving relationship. It’s both difficult and joyful. A lot of the time, it’s just life lived. I have not seen that on television before.”

Bean agreed. “It was like nothing I’d ever read before, and I always like something that’s different. You read a lot of scripts, and some of them are very good scripts, but they don’t have that amount of detail or description or subtlety.”

Given the volume of screen hours dedicated to couples, it seemed strange to Golaszewski that, until now, long-term marriages were only depicted in a heightened way that was out of sync with our experience.

“Often, you find in fiction that marriages are things that people are desperate to get out of, or terribly sad in. People seem to be keen to cheat quite a lot,” he said. “Yet, when you look around, you see all these people just trying their best, and finding things hard and getting things wrong, but acting out of hope rather than malice. I wanted to tell that story.”

You’d never guess it from Walker and Bean’s effortless chemistry on-screen, but Marriage is the first time the pair have worked together. It helped their dynamic, said Walker, that they were given a full week of rehearsals before cameras rolled, “which is unheard of now. I remember doing it when I first started acting, when I was 22, but that has long since become a thing of the past. So, that was incredibly helpful.”

Recalling the rehearsal week, Bean added: “We clicked pretty quickly, and we got to know each other, but we were very focused on our work. It felt natural and we had a wonderful chemistry.”

Nicola Walker as Emma in Marriage (credit: BBC)

It was at this point of the process that the characters were fleshed out in full. For example, with Bean’s input, they decided on Ian’s former job. “I never write biographies,” explained Golaszewski. “I’ve often been told in the past to write down what the characters like. I don’t like doing that either, because you meet someone one day and they’ve changed the next because of what’s happened to them in the intervening period. Pinning someone down with some adjectives isn’t very truthful. You end up blocking the actors in as well, because it is they who bring the life to it.”

While perhaps not intended at the time of conception, the relatability of the four-part series to its audience has increased as redundancy becomes a growing threat.

“I guess a lot of people these days are facing that, especially people in their fifties and sixties who are still competent and able-bodied but for some reason, maybe it’s technology, lose their jobs,” said Bean. “You leave Friday night and that’s it, it’s all gone. You have to cope with filling up 24 hours a day and feeling as though you’re getting in the way in the house and getting under the wife’s feet.”

Equally, the work ethic rarely disappears with the work. “Ian goes into the garden a lot, he goes into his shed, starts painting things, hoovering, killing ants, stuff like that. Worthy things that are necessary for a man to do.”

And, as Emma finds work opportunities opening up, “he feels as though he can’t speak to her because she’s always too busy now, and he doesn’t want to spoil that dream for her because he loves her. He’s happy for her but, at the same time, he’s quite jealous.”

For Walker, playing Emma at an important time in her career was another example of the realism involved. “The different personalities we are with different people is brilliantly illustrated with Emma,” she said. “The Emma that we see at work is a completely different woman to the Emma at home and the Emma with her dad. It’s [about] playing a fully rounded individual, because she has lots of different faces.”

"The different personalities we are with different people is brilliantly illustrated with Emma"

Personalities and the interplays between them have already proved to be a strength of Golaszewski’s, as demonstrated in his sitcoms Him & Her (starring Russell Tovey and Sarah Solemani) and Mum, which also won an RTS award for lead actor Lesley Manville. But after their successes, he pressed pause and reconsidered the art of television writing. His conclusion? Dramas today are restricted from showing real-life interactions because of their emphasis on plot and structure.

Instead, Marriage sought to put the truthful relationships between characters at the core of the show, and use plot as a device, rather than the other way around.

Walker highlighted an example in a scene where Ian seems to have made a little headway in his sensitive relationship with daughter Jessica: “There’s a moment when Ian makes a joke, and it’s received really well by his daughter. Normally, in drama, that’s your end point – that the father who’s found it difficult to speak to his daughter cracks a joke, and everything’s better. A great example of what Stefan does [is that] he has Ian say the joke again because the joke has gone well. It’s so painful. I’ve seen members of my family do that at family dinners.”

Marriage shows how a relationship is more than the sum of its parts.

“When I was writing the sitcoms, people seemed to be interested that it was funny one minute and sad the next,” said Golaszewski. “But, if you’re just doing your best to tell the truth, sometimes that will emanate as funny and sometimes it will emanate as sad. Sometimes, it will emanate as something enormous and sometimes as Ian moving Emma’s shoes yet again. Those are the little bits of detritus that our lives are built of.”

Report by Shilpa Ganatra. ‘Marriage – Preview Q&A’ was an RTS event held on 9 August. It was hosted by journalist Emma Bullimore and produced by Harriet Wilson, BBC drama publicist.