Created by Paul Abbott (Shameless) and written by Danny Brocklehurst (The Street, Clocking Off), BBC One’s Exile is a three-part psychological drama concerned with the impermanence of remembrance and the persistence of memory: the way that things forgotten – either through choice or force – can come back, and how even recollections that are buried deeply by illness or trauma can still be recalled if the circumstances are good – or bad – enough.
John Simm stars as Tom Ronstadt, a coked-up, washed-out excuse for a hack who writes ‘crap – and not even benign crap’ for a quasi-Heat tattle-rag. When the magazine sacks him (possibly because of the affair he’s having with the editor’s girlfriend), Tom finds himself with nowhere to go except back to the family home in the North of England that he left eighteen years ago.
His abrupt departure was prompted by an unexpected and uncharacteristically savage beating from his father, a respected campaigner, writer and journalist, and Tom has never been back. Now, Sam Ronstadt (Jim Broadbent) is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and is cared for by Tom’s younger sister Nancy (Peep Show’s Olivia Colman).
When Nancy takes Tom’s flash sports car for a spin, leaving her brother in charge of the house, the prodigal son quickly learns how bad things have become. Having to feed, dress, bathe and clean up after the old man is hard to deal with; as are the locked cupboards and the stair-guard at the bottom of the staircase. But what’s worst of all is the fact that Sam seems to remember some things and not others. It’s this infuriating inconsistency as much as anything else which prompts Tom to scream at his father: ‘Trust you to get this! You couldn’t get something quick like heart disease or cancer. No, you have to make us all suffer, don’t you, you selfish old twat?’
Eventually, Nancy returns, and Tom decides to stay with his family for a while – ostensibly to help his sister but also to unravel the truth behind the mysterious beating which prompted all the upheaval eighteen years before. ‘Maybe if I can understand why you’re such a fuck up, I can work out why I am,’ he says to Sam, who dribbles out a mouthful of soggy cornflakes by way of response.
Jim Broadbent is excellent as the man stripped of his dignity and – essentially – his life by a cruelly debilitating illness, most notably so when portraying Sam’s mood-swings: from apparently cogent coherence through miserably blank, I-almost-remember-you serenity to a rage of old-age impotence and childlike confusion.
John Simm (who really can’t play nasty for too long without his own essential decency seeping through) is equally impressive as the son who, having made a mess of his adult existence, comes home to try and gather up whatever pieces are left of the life he left behind. The scene where Tom goes to bed in his old room, now stripped-down and bare, perfectly captures the sense of loss and waste that he feels. You can almost smell the dried-out pieces of Blu-tack on the wall where the posters of his teenage years once hung.
However, the hour doesn’t pass in utter melancholia. As might be expected in a programme conceived by Paul Abbott, there’s plenty of humour amid the bleakness and a stream of quotably great lines (‘He couldn’t write “fuck” in a dusty blind’ is one to covet); not to mention more than enough intrigue to keep one gripped way beyond the closing credits. For a drama about forgetting, Exile is definitely memorable.
Airs at 9pm on Sunday 1st May 2011 on BBC One.