TV Review: A timely and horrifying account of living with the aftermath of a sexual attack
- Credit: C4
Channel 4 wasn't kidding when it named its latest series of short stories 'On the Edge'. The final episode in a trinity of programmes tapped into the #MeToo debate and started a new conversation about sexual assault.
There's something inherently special about a short story told late at night, but in a television world where length is often favoured over quality (look at Picnic at Hanging Rock – strong start, gradually weakening over six drawn-out episodes) the short story is in, well, short supply.
Inside No 9 on BBC2, written and performed by Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith, does it brilliantly with a range of stories told over an episode, each standing as its own vignette inside a dark and creepy universe linked by the number nine.
But few other shows adopt this idea of presenting a life in miniature: Channel 4 addressed this issue with a new series of fast-paced, taut dramas which didn't just test a set of new writers' ability to grab viewers' attention, but placed them in a gladiatorial ring where their future career may rest or fall on the success of this one shot.
The three bold, but thematically-linked, films took the story of a criminal, a witness and a victim and served up a raw slice of real life in contemporary Britain: one told the story of a young woman who has spent most of her life in and out of prison and whose release is put in the hands of a parole officer with her own demons, another looked at the life of a single mum and her 11-year-old son whose lives were shattered when he witnessed a gangland crime and was asked to testify against the killer and this, the story of a young woman forced to confront a painful reality she's tried to bury in her past.
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If it feels like the subject of sexual assault and abuse has been extensively covered by television in the past few years, that's because it has. But somehow, writer Rose Lewenstein and director Dionne Edwards managed to carve their own niche in a genre that feels almost exhausted.
They introduced us to anti-heroine Ashley (Chanel Cresswell) and her best friend Becca (Alexandra Roach) who live together but are living increasingly separate lives: Becca is keen to plan a grown-up future with her boyfriend, Ashley can barely commit to making a cup of tea.
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On the surface, party girl Ashley is a grade A drug-taking grade A pain in the backside A drugs. She's the kind of high-maintenance friend who makes you feel exhausted after five minutes, a quick-tempered hedonist without a care in the world. And then you scratch the surface and discover the truth.
The episode wasn't the strongest of the three (that plaudit goes to A Mother's Love, the story about the 11-year-old witness to a gangland crime) but it was possibly the most relatable: sexual assault is tragically far more common than any of us would like to believe. I know many women who have been subjected to some form of sexual attack, many of whom are still coping with the aftermath of what happened to them decades ago – Ashley's chaotic life was all too familiar.
The self-sabotage, the need to feel comfortably numb, the anger, the self-hatred, the fear, the guilt: Ashley may have been difficult to live with, but in comparison to the secret she was living with every day, she was a saint. Viewers realised she'd been raped within minutes, but she didn't reveal what had happened until the end, preferring to seek rough justice of her own by finding her attacker and seeking her own vengeance.
When she finally confronted the man who raped her, his refusal to believe that he had done anything wrong was as chilling as his new partner's refusal to listen to Ashley and her raw panic that he was about to assault her, too. Instead, the new girlfriend watched as the man calmly tore Ashley's claims to pieces, normalising the attack in a way that was sickening and that, it seemed, was the point of this painful short story, that the definition of rape needs to be nailed down, that information passed down and accepted by all.
By the end of the half-hour, and when Becca finally confronted her friend not with anger but with compassion (and hooray for showing such a strong female friendship, one that tries to tackle problems rather than walk away from them) Ashley finally tells her flatmate what she's been hiding and, in return, receives the love and support she had been craving. This episode wasn't flawless – the 'dealing with emotional turmoil via drink/drugs/random sexual encounters' path is well-trodden and somewhat clichéd – but it was gripping, timely and ultimately uplifting, despite the dark subject matter. And talking about things being uplifting, the On the Edge series bodes well for the future of drama: there's some serious talent out there.