TV review: Wonderland: The Trouble with Love and Sex

Gary Day is touched by an animated exploration of Relate's work with troubled or warring couples

May 19, 2011



Credit: Miles Cole


Wonderland is back (The Trouble with Love and Sex, BBC Two, Wednesday 11 May, 9pm). I wouldn't say its return makes life worth living, but it certainly makes Wednesday evening television worth watching. The title itself makes you pause for thought. "Wonderland." It hardly seems to describe modern Britain does it? A noisy, dirty, overcrowded little island full of market brands and cultural blight. A country of chain stores and charity shops, of crushing poverty and crumbling public services, a country trafficked by its political class to feed the diseased appetites of multinational corporations.

The opening shot of Wonderland, a chick huddled against the blast of passing traffic, is a symbol of the nation's plight under the coalition (for which read demolition) government. Why was the chicken forced to cross the road? Because Cameron wanted it crushed. There's no room for those who can't look after themselves.

"Wonderland." We have all fallen down the rabbit hole - it is full of cruelty and stupidity and also marvels. Cease to be amazed and the Rabbit, the Hatter and the Cheshire Cat disappear, leaving in their wake a rush of faces marked with weariness, marked with woe.

"Wonderland." You think you know about it. Oh yes. That documentary series that is the antidote to blandness in broadcasting, that gives depth to the flat screen by showcasing the whimsical, the eccentric and the downright odd, all that is being eliminated from corporate Britain. You know all about it. OK. But I bet you weren't prepared for a documentary on couples attending Relate that was, wait for it, animated. Me neither. Apparently it's a first for British television.

Any suspicion that the drawings would trivialise people's problems by turning them into a cartoon was quickly dispelled. If anything, they added dignity and pathos. The long, melancholy lines were reminiscent of Sylvain Chomet's The Illusionist (2010), the tale of a magician bewildered by a world that has forgotten the charms of enchantment, something with which Iain and Susan could probably empathise.

Iain was disappointed that Susan didn't want sex. In fact, she hadn't wanted sex for a long time. What's more, grumbled Iain, she didn't want to talk about it. Susan didn't see it that way. It wasn't that she was avoiding the issue, just that she didn't know how to explain what she felt. "Our marriage is not in a very good state at the moment," sighed Iain. Susan expanded. "We've had a lot of scenes where there's been screaming and shouting, where things have been smashed. All very unhappy and very dark and very black."

It's the old story. At some point a crack appears and grows wider with the years. You don't know why. All you know is that things are not as they were. "There are enough good things in our relationship to make it a good relationship," mused Iain, "but we don't have a bloody clue how to do it."

Although he had never been in a relationship, David had some inkling that they didn't always work out as you wanted. "It's like Peter Andre and Katie Price," he said. "They fell in love and got married, but now they've split up. All that love, it can just turn into hate." David knew something about hate. His father used to beat him. One time he even tried to kill him. He put a pillow over his son's face and pressed down hard. "I felt everything go black and then he suddenly stopped and opened his arms as if to hug me. I ran."

David had suicidal tendencies. He once sat on a park bench with some pills, crying. The passers-by, who must have seen something distressing, had somewhere to get to and walked calmly by. But there was another side to David, a "good self". Pay attention to that, said the counsellor, probably the only person who had ever been kind to him. "I will," said David. "I know it's there, waiting to grow."

Iain and Susan were working things out. They remembered how they met. Susan's friends pushed her into the seat next to Iain on a school trip. Perhaps they might make it after all. Another couple did. They went from not being able to be in the same room as each other to sharing a bath and drinking champagne cocktails. There was lots of giggling and splashing. "I feel like I'm 16 again," said Mandy, the wife. But there was to be no happy ending for Iain and Susan. He died from a heart attack.

David's counsellor wrote a letter to the "bad self", as if from David, thanking him for "services supplied and requesting a respectful end to our relationship". All David had to do was sign. He asked to borrow a pen. Relate patches, mends, repairs. It makes broken things whole. It does wonders. And so its funding is to be cut.

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