TV review: Exile

Families can go to extreme lengths to keep their secrets, finds Gary Day, but the truth will out

May 12, 2011

Credit: Miles Cole

Shown over three nights, Exile was the week's big drama (BBC One, Sunday 1, Monday 2, Tuesday 3 May, 9pm). It was big on suspense. Having to wait 24 hours before finding out what happened next took its toll on the nation. At work, people couldn't concentrate; at home, couples snapped at each other, children went unsupervised and pets went unfed. So caught up were viewers in the nightly revelations that they got confused about the local elections and voted Tory.

John Simm was Tom, a man who, after being fired from a magazine called Ransom, decides to go back to his roots. And so he returns to Bacup, a place he hasn't seen for 18 years. It hasn't changed much. It's still raining, for a start. Nancy, Tom's sister, played by the versatile Olivia Colman, does not look too pleased to see him. Nor is she particularly supportive. "Finally sacked you, then?" "Yes." "I'm not surprised." We never do find out why Tom was dismissed, but it's safe to bet that it wasn't over a matter of principle. He hesitates only a moment before behaving badly on the sofa with his best friend's wife.

Tom keeps having a flashback of a light swinging in his father's study. When it comes to a stop, everything will be illuminated. The ever-reliable Jim Broadbent was Sam, Tom's dad. He used to be a reporter, one of the old-fashioned sort - a trilby-hatted, rain-coated truth digger who makes uneasy the head that wears the crown. But even they, we learned, have their price. Sam now suffers from Alzheimer's, which, with a son like Tom, is probably a blessing. He does funny things. He shakes hands for a long time, he goes for walks in his underpants. Affliction can be amusing. That's what makes it either easier or harder to bear.

Tom left home because his father attacked him. "Beat me half to death," he tells his friend. Tom wanted to know why his dad set about him so viciously. The viewers could think of several reasons. The true one was that Sam caught his son leafing through a file that would have revealed his true parentage. He wanted to protect the boy from the knowledge that he was the son of a male nurse and the mental patient whom he raped. Those fists, those kicks, that sickening smash of the head against the edge of the desk. Was it a light swinging above him or concussion? Such violence. All in the name of love. And quite wasted too. Tom does discover who he is. Yes, it comes as a bit of a shock, but sometimes that's what's needed to make you turn your life around.

After all that excitement it was a relief to turn to Two Greedy Italians (BBC Two, Wednesday 4 May, 8pm). Chefs Antonio Carluccio and Gennaro Contaldo also went home, although they had been away much longer than Tom, 50 years in fact. Now they wanted to find out if Italy had changed. How did they remember it? As a place where Mamma cooked for the family, where recipes were handed down from generation to generation. Of the two, Gennaro was the most animated. He had started his career as Antonio's assistant but now claimed to be his best friend. The exact nature of their relationship kept them and the viewer amused throughout.

First stop was the Emiglia-Romagna region, famed for its Lambrusco wines and balsamic vinegar. Antonio and Gennaro were the guests of the Giacobazzi family, whose villa is probably about the size of Bacup. In the kitchen, the women were making tortellini - known locally as Venus' navel. It is a time-consuming task. "When you close the tortellini," said one daughter, "you have made a parcel of love." Her teeth were almost as dazzling as the sunlight. Outside, Gennaro discoursed on the function of the table in Italian culture. It is the place where you laugh and cry, fall in and out of love, converse, quarrel and sing. Sometimes you even eat at it.

It was a different story in Bologna. Here our travellers learned that Italian women would rather have careers than cook. Antonio was much affected by this news. Gennaro tried to cheer him up, first by trying to seduce him with a chocolate pudding just the look of which had me swooning in delight and then, when that didn't work, by setting him up with a date. Antonio showed his gratitude by expressing a wish to kill his benefactor: "that silly man".

Their sensuous philosophy, that life has two principal functions, nourishment and procreation, could not conceal a whiff of sadness that rose from their dishes. Antonio had no family. Italy had changed. The viewer began to suspect that this was no country for these old men.

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