TV Review: Unprecedented, Episode 1

Episode 1 of Unprecedented features strong writing from James Graham, Charlene James and John Donnelly 

“It’s clear that everything’s going to be different…
and then again, I’m scared that things won’t be different”

It is with an admirable speed with which Headlong and Century Films have pulled together Unprecedented, a theatrical response to the impact of lockdown on society. Conceived, written, filmed and produced in lockdown, and now airing on BBC4, some of our most exciting playwright and a cast of over 50 really have pulled together impressively and this first instalment of three short plays is certainly promising.

Necessity is the mother of invention, or something, and so all three use digital conferencing technology in one way or another and if anything, there’s no bigger marker in the way that our relationships to each other have been altered than this. How many of us even knew what Zoom was in January? And between them, writers James Graham, Charlene James and John Donnelly deftly sketch some of these changes. 

Charlene James’ Penny, directed by Holly Race Roughan, is the most straightforward of the pieces. A Facetimed love story between Lennie James’ homeless man now temporarily relocated in a hotel and Penny who has been left behind, it’s deceptively sweet as it also encases a damning indictment of how even in times of coronavirus, there’s a limit to society’s care for the homeless population.

John Donnelly’s Going Forward, with Blanche McIntyre at the helm, takes the form of a W1A-ish business meeting, and is strongest in its opening few minutes as we follow the chaos of attendees joining a video conference. What follows is a little bit on the nose, as brutal corporate interests take no prisoners in this time of crisis but ultimately, it isn’t altogether clear what point Donnelly is trying to make. 

For me, it is man of the moment James Graham’s Viral that shines best here, and not just because it features the Macarena. An uncompromising look at what might be the generation who suffers the most from this pandemic, the sixth formers unable to take their exams, have prom and who knows, even miss out on freshers week. Graham nails how teenagers are so much more tech savvy – there’s not a blink of an eye in these lads knowing how to show emotional support for each other – and there’s a beautiful tenderness that comes from the inter-relationships between all four characters here.

Overall, it’s a strong start to the series. As is often the way with such hyper-of-the-moment reaction pieces, there’s a sense of datedness that kicks in almost immediately, such is the speed with which everything is changing – it already feels like an age ago that we were half-joking about toilet paper shortages. Equally though, an added poignancy now comes in when talking about obeying lockdown rules even as relatives lie dying alone in hospital beds. Definitely worth checking out.

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