For the opening few minutes of Angela Black, ITV’s underwhelming new domestic abuse drama, we dare to dream it might be playing a trick on us. We are at a dinner party in one of those glass-walled, Grand Designs kind of suburban London houses that only exist in sinister TV programmes. A dead and decomposing fox lies in the road outside. Angela (Joanne Froggatt) and her husband Olivier (Michiel Huisman) are hosting. There is red wine. There is banter about whether Angela and Olivier are “coaster people”. For about 140 seconds, it is intriguing. Are these figures playing a charade about lame dinner party conversation? At some point they will surely collapse into giggles and start talking like real people.
That moment never arrives. Instead, Angela brings up an interesting fact about hippos. Did you know that they are the most dangerous animals in the world? They sometimes attack for no reason? At this point, astute and experienced television viewers might be asking themselves if they can think of any other animals that might attack without warning. What animal could be more dangerous than a hippopotamus? This foreshadowing doesn’t make Olivier’s violence against Angela, when it comes, any less shocking. The handsome, rich husband is a manipulative monster.
Clunkers like this accumulate in short order. Angela volunteers at the local dogs home. Her boss Judy (Ashley McGuire) cautions her against unmuzzling one of the residents. “They can all bite,” says Judy. What else could she possibly be referring to? Back at home, pleading for his situation, Olivier says: “I can be better. I want to do better.” “It’s not enough,” Angela replies, like a definite real person in a domestic abuse situation. She takes him back, but it’s unclear why she married him in the first place, even without the violence.
The script is the biggest problem, but it’s not the only one. From the tension-by-numbers score to the way Angela pours white wine (it’s always white wine) as she ponders her next steps, hardly a frame is left untouched by the cold hand of cliché. A menacing stranger, Ed Harris (Samuel Adewunmi), soon enters the mix. He claims to have been hired by Olivier to investigate Angela, but says he had a change of heart after realising what her husband was doing to her. He fails to improve the dialogue. I am sure the remaining five episodes will deliver a tortuous series of cliffhangers. Whether anyone will notice is another question. If a plot twist falls on ITV on a Sunday night and nobody’s around to watch it, did it really happen?
We can’t blame the cast. A performance can add another dimension to a character, but not two. Laurence Olivier himself couldn’t have done much with Olivier, who stalks the lifeless interiors like a panto villain. The persistent mystery is how Angela Black wound up so much less than the sum of its parts. Was it affected by Covid? The scriptwriters Harry and Jack Williams wrote The Missing, James Nesbitt’s gripping, twisty missing-child drama. Through their company, Two Brothers Pictures, they produced Fleabag. They know their way around a script. Froggatt won a Golden Globe for Downton Abbey; Huisman did good work on HBO’s The Flight Attendant. The director, Craig Viveiros, has a perfectly serviceable CV, including the BBC Agatha Christie adaptation And Then There Were None. But Angela Black never wakes up. Every beat is signposted, nothing is trusted to the viewer when it might be explained in the simple possible terms.
The sense of missed opportunity is all the more acute because the subject deserves serious representation. The most obvious thing about domestic abuse is that it happens in outwardly respectable couples. It’s a pernicious, subtle evil, which is why it can quietly ruin so many lives without anyone being any the wiser. But to believe in a story about the devastation it can wreak on ordinary middle-class people, the audience has to believe the characters are alive in the first place.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, you can call the 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline, run by Refuge, on 0808 2000 247, or visit their website here.