7.39

Joyless people in a joyless affair For 15 years Carl Matthews (David Morrissey) has been commuting to London on the 7.39. It works out to him spending 37 days a year on the train. More, he says ruefully, than he spends with his children. Sally Thorn (Sheridan Smith) is a new face, recently moved to the suburbs with her fiancé Ryan (Sean Maguire). She’s manages a health centre; he sells real estate. All they have in common is an exhausted dissatisfaction with their life and an inability to read on train.

‘I don’t feel like I’ve done enough!’ Sally wails her protest about her life to the moon. So she decides to do Carl.

Are we meant to care about their romance? I don’t. It’s hardly new is it? It’s been played out in a dozen films, 100 soap plots. Middle-aged man and a pretty young thing use adultery as an excuse to destroy the lives they don’t want without having to be honest about it. The train – borrowing the aura of Brief Encounter – is the only element that seems new, the enforced intimacy. Still, it would be the same if they were working together or neighbours or zombie hunters trapped in a building.

Or course, you say, there’s only so many plots to go around! That’s true, but that means you need something extra to engage the audience. A crime to solve, a mystery to unravel, a danger to face! Or characters to like – or hate – and a relationship to root for. An hour in and there’s nothing there for me to care about  – except maybe the train schedule.

Carl is vaguely lumpen, vaguely miserable. He occasionally has angry outbursts, but even they are a little bit wet. Sally has a little more to her – her discontent more honed, her claustrophobia more intense – but we spend more time with Carl. It feels like we spend more time with Carl. Their partners are nice enough – a little dull maybe, it’s hard to tell since we only see them through the eyes of their partners.

It’s probably quite true to life, an erosion with no clear fracture. The problem is that life is rarely dramatically satisfying, otherwise I’d be sitting with a glass to the wall.

The script by One Day author David Nicholls has clever, wickedly sharp moments, from Ryan’s persistent shirtlessness and tone-deaf, almost camp, domesticity to Carl’s wife (a sadly underused Olivia Colman, although she moves to prominence in the next episode) and her uncertain discomfort.

‘It’s never about you,’ Carl says, in a moment of cutting, unconscious honesty. It’s one of the best lines of the show. Unfortunately no matter how well written, the show doesn’t compel. There was never any question that Sally and Carl would have their affair or that they will be found out. What’s left?

7.39 is a beautiful shell, but the meat inside is a bit pre-chewed.

The second part of 7.30 is on tomorrow night on BBC at 9pm

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