This is by some vast, Route 66-sized distance, the least funny thing that Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show, Fresh Meat, The Thick of It) has ever written.
It’s so desolate and harsh it’s like crossing the grimmest expanse of tundra in Siberia on a Penny Farthing with no saddle – or standing on platform one at Wigan Wallgate railway station wearing a suit made entirely of wasps. It’s way darker than either The National Anthem or Fifteen Million Merits and is pitilessly hard to watch without realising the illusory nature of the things we hold dear, and how close everything is to falling apart. It’s also excellent.
Set in a parallel reality/dystopian future/a-week-next-Wednesday-if-Apple-can-roll-out-the-beta-version where most people have a tiny digital recorder embedded just behind their ear (a Grain) which records everything they see, meaning even the most infinitesimal and apparently insignificant memories are stored forever and can be accessed at the thumb-brushing of a tiny control – either viewed on the back of the eyelids or streamed instantly to screens in living rooms, kitchens and bedrooms.
Real recollections aren’t to be trusted; digital remembrance equals total recall – unless you edit or delete anything you don’t want to remember, of course. The Grain, though, is pretty much the only difference between Liam, Ffion and Jonas’s world and our own.
There’s no pig-porking Prime Ministers or bike-powered global talent shows controlling everything (well, none that aren’t already in existence in the here and now); just ordinary people – successful and living in Location Location Location locations, but recognisable as the populace of this planet – behaving as ordinary people do: being nice, being nasty, and deceiving their partners for the good of their relationships.
Liam (Toby Kebbell) and Ffion (Jodie Whittaker) are in love, happily married, and proud parents of baby Jodie. However, one dinner party with Fi’s old friends later, and everything has spiralled out of control quicker than a drunk prop forward at a quad-bike convention. Liam is instantly suspicious of laidback, flirtatious Jonas (Tom Cullen) and his relationship with Fi, and a quick redo – reviewing – of his memories of the evening prove that his wife has misled him about how well she knows this ‘bit of a knob … bit of a prick,’ who prefers hugging strangers to shaking their hands.
A lake of brandy later, Liam establishes that, rather than the weeklong fling Fi eventually confessed to, Jonas was actually her lover for six months. Steaming and enraged, he attacks the bit of a prick with a broken bottle and forces him to wipe all his memories of his time with Fi. Later, unravelling faster than a bandage on a headspinner, Liam compels his missus to playback her electronic remembrance of an illicit shag she had with her lover in the marital bed when her husband had disappeared for a few days after a row.
In the end, Liam is left alone in his empty house – has she dumped him or has he dumped her … into a skip? We never find out – with only his memories to watch, over and over again.
Toby Kebbell is excellent in his portrayal of a man coming abruptly apart at the psychological seams (yeah, Liam might have been a bit disturbed already, but not much more than most) and Jodie Whittaker is even better as Fi, whose only crime is misleading her husband to protect him from the kind of emotional doodlebug he explodes on himself.
‘Not everything that isn’t true is a lie,’ she wisely remarks, summing up the deception and misremembering that are integral facets of not only romantic relationships but of life itself. Without them, the world would be a toxic casserole of jealousy, inadequacy, and wretchedness; and in a world with the Grain, such tasty dishes are just a quick redo away.
Without the essential illusions of existence, reality is a dismal, hateful place – something Liam doesn’t realise until it’s too late.
Some will undoubtedly find the searing, beyond-the-veil honesty of The Entire History of You too much to take. After all, remove the storyline and the acting and it might as well be an hour of a naked, morbidly obese man wearing a mask with Michael Gove’s face on it, screaming ‘YOUR LIFE IS A DELUSION’ until he can only croak hoarsely like a toad crushed under the diarrheic outpouring of a bison with dysentery. Difficult to cope with, in other words.
It’s far easier to dismiss this as techno-paranoia from someone who’s seen Total Recall too many times than to accept how vital smoke and mirrors are in our daily lives. But for those who like – if that’s the right word – their dramas as black as Johnny Cash reborn as a raven, this is a brave, bitter and bleak production that’s as uncomfortably familiar as it is woefully watchable. To dismiss it as mere fiction would be going against the grain.
Aired at 9pm on Sunday 18th December 2011 on Channel 4.
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