Writers: Chloe Moss, Nathanial Martello White and Jasmin Lee Jones
Directors: Caitlin McLeod, Nathanial Martello White and Tinuke Craig
The scheduling of BBC and Headlong’s series of lockdown plays has been peculiar, four sets of stories broadcast over three nights with a concluding anthology made available only through the iPlayer and not broadcast on BBC4 with the rest. With theatre closures and filming suspended on most television shows there is so little new content currently available it seems a shame not to have eked these out for longer.
But Episode Five of Unprecedented is, on the whole, a strong entry in the series, taking three very different and more technically inventive perspectives on the effect of Coronavirus than the previous editions. Chloe Moss’s debut Everybody’s Talkin’ is a skilfully constructed video chat between a mother player by Sue Johnston and her three adult daughters Liz (Denise Gough), Rebecca (Rochenda Standall) and Catherine (Rebekah Staton).
Directed by Caitlin McLeod, this is a story about stoicism and the refusal to talk about what is really on our minds. So, the family discuss the availability of pasta shapes to distract from the real issues of loneliness and fear bubbling beneath the surface. But Moss is really interested in the shallow interest in mental health, the encouragement to talk except when you do no one actually wants to hear it, which leaves Johnston’s character frustrated and disappointed in her girls.
Nathanial Martello White’s unusual piece Central Hill is determined to wrong-foot the audience from the start, using thriller-like camera work to introduce supermarket products smeared with blood being washed in a sink. The anxiety-laden incidental music implying a crime drama or horror film are at odds with the couple talking about their relationship until the entire scene is interrupted by a dressing-gown-clad director played by Julian Barratt.
The concept of making a film within a film is an interesting one and there is some mileage in the premise as male actor Theo (Abraham Popoola) and Director John find their real lives intruding. But some of this is overplayed including a rather melodramatic conclusion for actress Dee (Erin Doherty) which probably worked better on paper than it does on screen, with too many competing ideas for a such a short timeframe.
The final piece, Batshit by Jasmin Lee Jones is one of the most visually intriguing of the series, and while it is a single to-camera monologue, Tinuke Craig’s filming style avoids Zoom to create what is essentially a post-apocalyptic sci-fi-inspired movie scene. Performed by Kae Alexander, there is a lot of context in Jones’ play as details slowly emerge of destruction, slaughter and retribution seemingly visited on China for starting the virus.
It is an intense few minutes and as Alexander raises the tempo just who she is talking to, the time period this woman is in and what form the virus has taken becomes just as intriguing as piecing together how we got from here to there. Using a plain background, low rumbling sound effects and filming entirely in black and white makes Batshit one of the more inventive plays of the series as well as creating a wider life around the monologue.
Everyday life in lockdown may have felt the same but across its five episodes Unprecedented has shown surprising variation of tone, content and filming style, with some focusing solely on the effect of the virus with others using our switch to video platforms and social isolation as the basis of their narrative. With a lot of talent in front of and behind the camera, these are responses to savour and it is a shame the binge-watch scheduling has made us gobble them up so quickly.
Available here until May 2021