Episode 2 - November 17 2005
BBC Two, 10pm
There is such a thing as poetry on television — moments when writing and acting combine to evoke a mood that, in some imperceptible way, cleanses the spirit and makes you a kinder and more thoughtful person, if only for a few moments. On the surface, the relationship between the husband and wife who have been married for more than 30 years (Denis Lawson and Joanna Lumley) is the stuff of comedy — endearing, ridiculous and easy to watch. But it is the introspection and sadness underneath that gives the work its richness and beauty. Poetry loses all of its power when paraphrased, but if you watch this episode — and I beg you to watch this episode — you’ll see what I mean.
Episode 3 - November 24 2005
BBC Two, 10pm
While David Warner’s oh-so- charming man of letters is busy making Joanna Lumley feel desirable, poor old Denis Lawson is stuck at home agonising about a book prize and what to say to his fellow judges. “Say what you think,” his wife tells him. Her advice doesn’t help. “Darling, darling,” he replies. “There are ways of saying what you think that make people think that what you’re thinking is actually more thoughtful than you actually think it is. I mean, what do you think?” But for all his spluttering confusion, by the end of this episode he has realised what it is that makes a work of art a classic. “It’s when you know something is true.” And it is the truthfulness behind the jokes that makes this series so haunting.
Episode 4 - December 1 2005
BBC Two, 10pm
Here are three theories worth testing while you wait for the medication to kick in. First, whatever object you can see in the room around you, you know how it would taste if you touched it with your tongue. Second, if you find yourself humming a tune or singing a song for no apparent reason, go through the lyrics and you’ll discover whatever is preying at the back of your mind. Finally — and a little more sensibly — the imaginative use of music is the guarantee that a programme is worth watching. Tonight, Al (Denis Lawson) is forced to take piano lessons, and piano music provides the backdrop to an unusually light and funny episode. When film- makers get the music right, it is odds-on that they’ve got everything else right as well.
Episode 5 - December 8 2005
BBC Two, 10pm
One of the most powerful images in modern drama is the illuminated mouth of Beckett’s Not I screaming out of the blackness. Tonight’s episode of Sensitive Skin begins with a brilliant comic variation on that image, and from there it gets funnier and funnier. After a lifetime in accountancy, the strait-laced brother-in-law (Nicholas Jones) has decided to break loose. “There are other and more exciting choices to be made,” he tells Davina (Joanna Lumley). “So I just wanted you to know that I have decided to open myself up to these experiences — to make myself available for new possibilities.” While he is being open and available, everyone else is getting stoned with his son.
Episode 6 - December 15 2005
BBC Two, 10pm
This may be the closest that a TV drama has come to evoking the serenity and sadness of a chamber piece by Schubert. Because it is the last in the series, it is difficult to preview without ruining it, so all I can reasonably do is beg you to watch it. It is a gem — and a precious one at that, even though it does have a flaw. The writer Hugo Blick has already established himself as the master of the monologue, and here he has written an inspired two-hander. With all attention on the relationship between Davina and Al (Joanna Lumley and Denis Lawson), the rest of the family are given little to work with apart from resentment. But when you’re listening to a haunting piece of music and someone coughs, does it matter?
The Daily Telegraph
BBC 2, 10.00 pm
I don’t think the angst of the contemporary, affluent middle class has yet been so well captured as in this fine series. Via Denis Lawson and Joanna Lumley, it’s asked “what now?” for the aging first generation that really thought it could have it all. Love and happiness jostle with constant daily disappointment; a marriage splits up, a heart stops beating properly and even – amazingly – real honesty appears. Tonight’s poignant, sad and clever ending feeds into a second series, already commissioned, but not set to grace our screens until 2007.
Sensitive Skin, BBC Two, 10pm – Episode 1
Hugo Blick’s sixtysomething drama starring Joanna Lumley returns for a second series. Broadly speaking, it is a story of love, money, sex, betrayal and loss. Apart from being hugely funny in places, it also achieves something that is rare in TV drama – it is beautiful. Although drenched in autumnal sadness, it is so sharply observed that it never subsides, like a bad French art film, into a sodden wallow. The last time around, in a desperate attempt to explain why it was so affecting, I compared it to a chamber piece by Schubert and wound up in Private Eye’s Pseuds Corner. Nonetheless, the series is a masterpiece – the kind of drama that makes up for the shallow and mediocre nastiness of so much television. Please, I beg of you, don’t miss it.
Sensitive Skin, BBC Two, 10pm – Episode 2
Why is this series such essential viewing? Because it describes loneliness and loss using the language of comedy; because it is sharply written and beautifully performed by actors with decades of experience and no vanity, and because – unlike most television nowadays – it recognises that the 20 to 30-year-old demographic does not represent the entire population of this country. It also uses a soundtrack to brilliant effect, including everything from Bach and Mozart to Chris Isaak and Cat Stevens. The comedy in tonight’s episode, which stars Maureen Lipman as a diabolical feminist and Jean Marsh as a gentle fantasist, is broader than in previous episodes, but – like all the funniest comedy – it is still profoundly serious at heart.
Sensitive Skin, BBC Two, 10pm – Episode 3
One of the many wonderful aspects of the BBC’s production of Bleak House was the way familiar faces — actors such as Johnny Vegas — gave such unexpected performances. Something similar happens tonight with Anthony Head, who in the past has always seemed too smooth by half. Davina (Joanna Lumley) is, in her own words, sitting there like Elsa the lioness without a clue what to do with her freedom. Along comes Head, full of charm and laughter, and it isn’t long before the two of them are bobbing up and down on the Thames. This is the one occasion when, if Anthony Head offered you a cup of coffee, it would be churlish to refuse.
The Times - TV Review - 5 out of 5 stars
Apart from “Bolly, sweetie?” and “Lacroix” one of the most revealing of Patsy Stone’s expressions in Absolutely Fabulous was “Super smashing thanks a lot”, which Joanna Lumley muttered very quickly. It was curt, dismissive, fantastically shallow, so Patsy.
In Sensitive Skin, Lumley’s character Davina again swallows almost every word to the point of inaudibility. She couldn’t be less Patsy-like, yet the ghost of Patsy’s beehive, and Purdey from The New Avengers and a general air of roughed-up 1960s glamour, still hangs around her. The sound of a ticking clock played over the opening moments of the first episode of the second series. Time was passing, yet Davina was frozen in stasis. “He’ll be here soon,” Davina said in a voiceover about husband Al.
But Al was dead. We flashed back to the end of the last scene of the last series and her emerging from his hospital room screaming for medical help; that scream smashed, like a hammer shattering glass, the hushed restraint of Hugo Blick’s drama.
Sensitive Skin is one of those odd-balls of the schedules: it was initially sold as a sixtysomethings-living-it-up comedy drama, Lumley and Denis Lawson (as Al) residing in a fantastically trendy flat in East London, and out-cooling every skater boy in a 20-mile radius. But Blick instead minutely deconstructed a floundering marriage. Davina toyed with the idea of leaving Al for the younger Greg (Adam Rayner) in his crotch-hugging leathers. There was comedy, but it also felt so bleak and compressed that it might have been one of those bitter French arthouse films.
Any laugh was bracketed with piercing sadness. Now Davina seemed blasted by Al’s demise; she drifted almost invisibly into work at the art gallery in Clapham run by Sam (Oliver Cotton) and had been to see 34 flats since Al’s death. Her son Orlando had gone missing. Davina’s sister Veronica (Maggie Steed) and her husband Roger (Nicholas Jones) had taken her in.
The trio went to a restaurant where a sleazy plumber tried to pick her up, only for his wife to turn on Davina viciously, assuming she was a lonely divorcée “looking for a jolly good rodding”. Veronica couldn’t stand having her stay: Roger was sexually fascinated by Davina (“She is to me as a piano is without a player”) and it was killing their marriage.
Blick’s brilliance as a writer was to make us laugh at his absurdity while also showing the strangulating anger and bitterness of Veronica, furious at how Davina had “looks, beauty, money and freedom”, while she – who had stayed true to her marriage – was trapped. She erupted on a bus after a shopping trip, leaving Davina with most of her bags.
Greg returned in his leathers but Davina gently sent him packing. The horrible plumber bought a painting of Davina, Widow in the Wilderness, which showed her naked and screaming. His jealous wife slashed it to pieces – in her fury only just missing an electrical cable, and near-death, by inches.
Blick, who writes, directs and produces the show, is a master of such detail. It’s there in his direction, too: he makes London, so overfilmed and overexposed, feel unfamiliar. In some scenes the camera stays quite still and far from his actors, so you feel like a spectator at an art gallery watching a moving picture. He has crafted a weird, compulsive curio that is quite unlike anything else on TV. Lumley’s character is so pared back that she sometimes feels invisible. It is a brilliant portrayal of true grief; less wailing, more numb, stumbling. The second season will be the last, so savour this bitter, strange fruit while you can.