40 hit the TV screen eleven years to the very day, (Tues 8th Apr 2003 to be exact, with parts 2 and 3 following on consecutive nights) and, as with many of their dramas, Channel 4 have criminally never repeated it. But it is at least available on DVD.
Much hyped at the time for the curiosity value of having Eddie Izzard in a starring, straight dramatic role, 40 didn't seem to go down that well with some critics and viewers who, for some unknown reason, seemed to expect Cold Feet mark 2. Clearly they'd seen the words 'old friends' 'school reunion' and 'approaching milestones' and saw that a stand up comedian headed the cast and thought they were in for something safe, cosy and ever so amusing. Perhaps there'd be jokes about the weekly shop and the school run? Indeed many reviews that immediately followed complained that it wasn't funny, seemingly missing or failing to understand the drama tag the show wore.
It may well fit into the 'friends reunited' mould but there are rich seams of darkness, repression, perversity and almost unbearable angst and pain running through 40 like turbulence in the clear skies of nostalgia, reverie and regret for how life has turned out. Not least of all in the plot which saw Hugo Speer play former class hero Rob, now married to Fox's brittle Rescue Remedy taking wife, Maggie. When he does 'A Good Thing' and saves an illegal immigrant worker played by Amira Casar from detention we - the audience - are immediately wrongfooted to find this philanthropy getting very ugly very quickly. Speer is turned on by the pain and hardship she has endured from torturers back home, visible in the many scars, burns and lesions upon her body, and a brief and twisted affair takes place. We then find out that he's been getting off on the pain of others for decades, having an equally exploitative affair with the former classmate and now family friend, the damaged and equally self inflicted scarred Joanne Whalley's Jessie Beck, school 'dare' legend, married to hopeless cuckold and all round nice guy Vincent Regan.
Meanwhile izzard plays Ralph, an emotionally empty but brilliant advertising exec, the type who soared in the 80s and 90s but who was now clearly fearful of reaching a plateau in terms of creativity and drive, ergo 'manliness'. Ralph has a past with Anita, played by Nimmy March, a volatile relationship that fell apart due to their drug use and an unwanted baby. Ralph returns to Bristol for the reunion and wants to reclaim his spark and therefore his past - what was clearly a better more vibrant time - with Anita but she knows she cannot risk it and feels she has moved on. Ralph is all about the past, but Anita wants a future. She wants a child, again.
And then there's Gregory played by Mark Benton, the sort of amiable seeming guy who deep down has spent a lifetime suffering as only a man could when he's known to one and all as 'Tubby' (it's even on his nametag at the reunion, much to his dismay) But it's not just size that is Gregory's issue, he's an incredibly lonely seemingly deliberate underachiever and sexually confused.
There's also a brief turn from the ever excellent Adie Allen as the bossy and opinionated former head girl, friend of and joint organiser of the get together with Nimmy March's Anita. She's like her fiercely protective rottweiler the minute there's even a sniff of Izzard on the scene and it's a shame her character isn't explored in the slightest as it's interesting to ponder what Allen would give it, given she managed to provide so much in the small peripheral role.
Bryan Elsley's script may not be the sharpest one he has ever turned in (he's also responsible for The Crow Road, Skins and last year's impressive Channel 4 drama Dates) and it may be prone to some stilted 'MEANINGFUL DRAMA!' dialogue but it's nonetheless one that will largely hook you in across the three parts as you find yourself wanting to see what will become of the gang from the mid to late 70s. Quite cannily Elsley uses a non linear narrative structure which has scenes flitting around various timelines and shown from different character perspectives - with scenes repeated and played over at various stages of each part. This is especially clever because it means the dead ends and non events one could easily accuse some of the stories of having are thus well masked. What, for example, is the purpose of seeing Regan's dad played by that great veteran actor William Gaunt present a sign of dementia in what runs to just a couple of minutes of screen and plot time?
Ultimately, 40 is a good looking slice of violent and sexually explicit (there's plenty of nudity, from the likes of March, Whalley, Casar, Chloe Howman and even a full frontal of Izzard himself) challenging adult drama but there's a hollowness to the issues it tries to challenge you with, specifically the Speer storyline, making it feel rather like it just wanted to shock you all along. It succeeds - especially with the sting in its tail - but a spot of intellectual depth and three dimensional characterisation wouldn't go amiss. A lot happens in 40, from each perspective, but often to little actual purpose. It lacks the narrative strength that someone like Tony Marchant can deliver but as a stylish piece,, it's still worth a watch. I was especially taken with the look, sound and feel of the piece helped immeasurably by (former Fall player) Simon Rogers suitably sparse but lively score that harked back to the basic chords and energy of punk, the era that 40's characters were most alive and when they felt the world was at their feet.