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A British ‘Friends’? Not Quite, Mate

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you settle down to watch the punchy BBC drama “This Life” tonight on BBC America, leave your preconceptions about British television behind. No frocks, no nicely spoken young men and women in grand country houses. This is a story of London today, and though the plot centers on five young professionals sharing a house, it is also a million miles from any American series set in the same milieu.

“It’s warts and all and, compared with ‘Friends,’ our characters have a lot more faults,” executive producer Tony Garnett explains about the group of twentysomethings in “This Life,” whose home has none of the glamour of Monica’s Greenwich Village pad. “They are young lawyers just out of college, they don’t get paid much, and life is kind of messy.”

It is the gritty realism in “This Life” that is one of its most appealing, and for an American audience possibly offensive, qualities. The jerky camera movements in the series follow the characters through gay and straight sex, full frontal nudity (an equal number of men and women bare all), constant drinking, smoking, occasional drug use and wall-to-wall swearing (the worst of which is muted in the U.S. version). BBC America, the cable channel devoted to BBC programming, attracted some critical attention when it first ran the series last year. But as the channel is only available in 10 million homes in the U.S., when the second season starts this week the audience is probably not large enough to be outraged.

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Even for a British audience used to seeing more risque TV, the series was a slow burn. “The reaction was hostile in the beginning,” Garnett explains. “In this country if we have on the screen young, rather beautiful, articulate, talented people, it attracts envy. You only get approval if your looks are unfortunate and you are very, very depressed.”

They Work Hard and Play Hard

The central characters--Milly, Egg, Warren, Anna and Miles--are attractive but not quite beautiful, can be a little rough around the edges and have realistic struggles with a lifestyle that includes working and playing hard. Once the flaws in the characters showed and the British audience realized this was not the yuppie tale they had suspected, the series developed a cult following. When the second season played in the U.K., it drew regular audiences of 4 million people, a large number for a drama on BBC2. By the time the BBC and Garnett’s production company, World Productions, decided to end the show after 32 episodes, there was a national outcry and a rash of media campaigns to try to reverse their decision.

“This Life” was originally commissioned by BBC2 (the smaller and more alternative of the BBC’s two national channels) because the channel was concerned that its audience was skewing too old. BBC2 wanted a series that would reflect the domestic and working lives of people in their 20s. “I took the brief because in the end we don’t hear from that generation and they do not have a voice of their own,” Garnett said.

Garnett, 63, is a respected British producer who produced Ken Loach’s early feature films and did a stint in Hollywood producing features like “Earth Girls Are Easy.” His exposure to those in their 20s was restricted to his children, and for “This Life” he needed to assemble a group of young writers “to bring me news from the front,” as he puts it. He got lucky when his development executive found an unproduced script from a former lawyer, Amy Jenkins, who was in her 20s.

“She had the real voice of that generation and she had an attitude,” Garnett explained. That attitude included telling Garnett at first meeting that it was time his generation moved on. “She looked at me and said, ‘It’s your generation who refuse to get old, you still have all the jobs, you go out with younger women, and you won’t make way for us.’ I thought that was a pretty spunky thing to say.”

Jenkins, who had studied law and been a trainee in a legal firm before quitting to pursue writing (something similar happens to the character named Egg in the series), was perfectly qualified to develop the characters and the core story lines, not just because she knew the law but also because of her age. “ ‘This Life’ isn’t a legal show,” Jenkins says. “It’s about the characters, their friendships, their relationships and the way they feel and behave at work.”

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Jenkins’ cast of characters and Garnett’s casting managed to represent a range of racial, sexual and class groups from across Britain without blatant tokenism. Finding actors to play characters like Anna, a hard-drinking, sassy Scot, and Warren, a quirky Welsh homosexual in therapy, was the next hurdle. Garnett was free to look for untried actors but getting the balance right meant months of auditions. “We saw hundreds of people and did hours and hours of improvisation and tried to keep our nerve,” he says.

Jack Davenport, who plays the good-looking, unreconstructed Miles, went for seven auditions before he got the role. “It was my first really big role, and the auditions were a very exhaustive process, but because of the quality of scripts I was desperate to do it. It was written like people talk and touched on a lot of contemporary subjects without being patronizing.”

Finding the actress to play Anna, a tough flirt with a quick tongue who despises and lusts after Miles, was a real challenge. Daniela Nardini, who had worked primarily in theater, was about to quit acting to take up teaching when she was asked to meet the producers of “This Life.”

“Anna was a gift,” Nardini explains. “She was so naughty and was always up to some shenanigans.” Though she plots courtroom machinations and wears skirts as short as Ally McBeal’s, Nardini says that is where the comparison ends. “Anna is much tougher and more of a mess. She is an excessive person, drinks too much, smokes loads of cigarettes and does not look after herself.” Anna is also as promiscuous as some of the male characters and struck a nerve with her sexuality. As one British newspaper observed: “Pamela Anderson is but a Kraft cheese slice to the ripe Stilton sensuality of Ms. Nardini.”

Anna also swears as much as the other characters, which, like the sex and the drinking, was seen as part of a realistic portrayal of how young people live. Though the BBC did have some standards: “We did have a weekly phone call with someone in the [BBC broadcasting standards department],” recalls Garnett, who said they would debate the frequency of the harshest expletives in each episode. “Sometimes we were told there was rather a high count and asked to reduce it, though it was all very civilized.”

32 Episodes Seemed Like Enough

After 32 episodes (long by British series standards) and at the peak of its success, it was Garnett who pulled the plug on the series. “I got bored. It was 32 episodes of a viewer’s life and three years of mine and I had other shows playing in my head which I wanted to make.”

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For actors like Davenport and Nardini, the ending was hard, but both walked away with careers. True to its tone, the denouement of “This Life” is not happy. As Davenport explains: “The way we finished it, all of the characters are deeply unhappy--except one. I think that’s very brave of the writers, not to go out on a feel-good note.”

* “This Life” can be seen tonight at 7 and midnight on BBC America via some L.A.-area cable systems, DirecTV and Dish Network.

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