British sitcoms with a central female character usually fall into two camps. If she is young, she must be impossibly cute and winsome; the main premise being her woeful love life, her quest to get hitched, or her attempts to have a baby. If she is older, it’s possibly all of the former, but more likely her status within her family, her juggling of her exceedingly busy life, or her illicit affair with Roger from Number 36. What drew me to the five-parter ‘Love, Nina’ was that it was less about her traditional role as female and more about a young person coming of age in London in the early eighties, working as a nanny for an eccentric family.
Faye Marsay was the titular heroine, a fairly under the radar actress, who will no doubt pop up more in the future. Cute, but not impossibly so, she captured that sense of gangling awkwardness of the just turned twenty but still feeling like a little girl and not quite knowing how to be grown-up. Padding barefoot between the supermarket, her yoga class and her almost-boyfriend Nunney’s house while trying to fathom her place in the brave new world she found herself in was captivating. She often puts her bare foot in it, frequently embarrassing herself, or acting thoughtlessly, but still very endearing.
The fact that the series is autobiographical gives it greater depth and much more intrigue. It’s oft observed that truth is stranger than fiction and the curious cast of characters around her are entirely believable, despite their oddity. I read a couple of derogatory comments claiming that the inappropriate manner in which the children spoke to the adults and vice versa was not authentic. Leaving aside the fact that it’s a memoir, so they more than likely did, I’ve occasionally dabbled in the intellectual elite circle (only as hapless observer!) and it rang true for me. Those people often don’t feel confined by social niceties and say exactly what they’re thinking a lot of the time, regardless of how it might come across, maybe because they feel they are permanently in a book.
The household Nina works for is no common or garden affluent gaff but the home of esteemed literary critic Mary-Kay Wilmers (here called Georgia) and her sons that she had with her ex, the equally esteemed director Stephen Frears, who doesn’t feature as a character. The location is Gloucester Crescent, home to Alan Bennett, who also pops up. Well, sort of. I’ve not read Nina Stibbe’s book, but apparently one of the reasons it flew off the shelves was because of the revelations about ‘national treasure’ Bennett. Here, he has morphed into an uppity, effete, fictional poet called Malcolm Tanner, perhaps a nod to other fictional great Malcolm Tucker? They certainly share the same caustic honesty. I think this was the right choice (although other reviewers did not); maybe we have Nick Hornby’s involvement as scriptwriter to thank. The piece otherwise would have been all about how much like or not like Bennett he was, rather than Nina’s awakening. The parents may be well known, but they are more behind the scenes than household name Bennett. And Jason Watkins brings the same entertaining superiority to his part as he did to W1A.
The best scenes happen round the dinner table, where each night Nina’s culinary offering is put under Malcolm’s scrutiny and usually found wanting. That is when they’re not dissecting Nina’s love life or gossiping about which of their acquaintances has crabs. Georgia appears to suffer Malcolm’s presence as one might a limp, but you realise her fondness for him when Nina tries to lay the blame for their pranged car at his door and he huffs off leaving an empty space at the table. Helena Bonham Carter is superb as Georgia, steely, dry, subsuming her fear for son Joe’s ill health with a patina of hardness. Having played nubile goddesses in her youth and batty eccentrics as she’s got older, it’s refreshing to see such a centred, strong performance.
A couple of jarring notes. Nina’s barefootedness did get irritating. Apparently she wasn’t always without shoes, but they obviously decided it was the character’s ‘thing’. I can understand why the household got used to it, but at no point did anyone comment on it in the street, or even stare, which seemed unlikely. While they captured very well Nina’s being at odds with her surroundings, I think the aggression towards her by the family at certain points, especially over Malcolm and the pranged car, was a bit overplayed. My other half wandered into the room while I was watching that bit and observed that they were meaner to her than her demeanour deserved, so perhaps she should have been more bolshy. Lastly, each scene came complete with a title at the start, the line featuring at some point within the scene. This was presumably meant to emphasise the literary-ness, but in fact, blowing some of the good lines, as well as meaning one was constantly waiting for that line to feature. I tried not to read them after a while.