My wife and I both grew up watching Masterpiece Mysteries on Sunday nights with our families and, early in our relationship, we bonded on this shared television experience. For the past twenty years, we have kept up that Sunday night tradition, making our way through an embarrassing number of British mysteries and crime dramas.
We particularly enjoyed shows that took us to far off locales like Shetland and Hinterland or other time periods like the Australian Doctor Blake and Miss Fisher Mysteries. We could go for darker shows like the unsettling Broadchurch, but often balanced them out with lighter fare like The Coroner or Father Brown, featuring G.K. Chesterton’s Anglo-Catholic priest more interested in saving souls than punishing criminals.
After becoming parents to a micro-preemie with significant medical needs, our British shows provided much needed respite after long and stressful days caring for our daughter. We had lost control over almost all aspects of our lives and drew comfort from the familiar routine, from watching problems get resolved neatly within the span of an hour.
At a time when we had to stay within an Oxygen tank’s drive of Boston Children’s Hospital, we appreciated being transported across the pond. Though not a mystery, a show we particularly enjoyed for this travelogue quality was Doc Martin. The eponymous doctor, played brilliantly by Martin Clunes, is an acerbic London surgeon who starts life anew as a G.P. in a Cornish fishing village where he had spent summers as a boy.
The show also sent me back in time to my own summer memories; specifically, my family’s six-week trip to England when I was thirteen years old. “That looks just like Port Isaac,” I said to my wife while watching the series pilot. My family spent a weekend there in the summer house of Michael and Jane Thomas, who my parents had befriended while living in London in the late 1960’s.
As a kid, I was enchanted by the village, with its narrow lanes, flanked by centuries old stone houses, and a cove that revealed entrances to caves when the tide went out and occasionally subsumed tourists’ cars when it came back in. I was also reminded of a bench overlooking that cove placed there in memory the Thomas’s son, who had significant health issues and passed away before reaching adulthood. The credits at the end of the pilot revealed what I suspected: the fictional “Port Wenn” was in fact my beloved Port Isaac, those quaint streets were the very ones I had explored over thirty years before.
Since Covid hit, we have been strictly quarantined. With our daughter’s complex pulmonary history, we have erred in the side of caution, getting all our groceries delivered and rarely stepping foot inside a store. We also drew comfort once again from our British TV shows. One that particularly resonated was William and Mary, a family drama that first aired in 2003, which we might have passed over had it not featured Martin Clunes. Expecting to see some kind of precursor to the socially awkward Doc Martin, we were impressed to see Clunes bring to life his veritable opposite, a warm, loving, and sociable father and widower.
William is an upper middle class undertaker who has taken over the family business; Mary is a working class midwife for the National Health Service. You could practically hear the pitch to producers: “She brings them into the world and he ushers them out.” And while that is certainly the show’s tagline, its writers take on matters of life and death in a way that feels authentic, not melodramatic.
From the leads to the smallest supporting roles, the characters are fully and generously developed. Despite all their flaws, you could not help loving them and cheering them on in their daily struggles. The dialog always sounds authentic, almost eerily so. We see William and Mary, both in the middle of hectic work days, checking in briefly by cell phone about scheduling minutiae but also their joyful anticipation of a romantic evening. It sounds like a thousand phone calls my wife and I have had over the last twenty years.
The show also takes on social issues in a way that American family dramas rarely do. At times, William and Mary have competing values, reflecting their different upbringings, and it’s refreshing to hear them argue about it. Mary sends her two bi-racial teenage sons from a previous relationship to state school (what we call public school). Soon after they begin dating, Mary almost ends the relationship when she discovers that William’s two daughters attend an expensive prep school. My wife attended the prestigious Phillips Academy Andover on a scholarship, while I went to public school in New York City, so that particular dispute certainly resonated.
In another episode, Mary tries working for a private agency and we see the contrast between her highly privileged new clients and her old ones, often stressed-out single moms living in council flats (public housing). When she returns to her old job, she says with a sense of relief, “I guess I’ll always be an NHS girl.” In other words, these characters don’t have merely private lives; they are depicted as public citizens whose values and choices impact the wider community.
William and Mary ran for only three seasons. While I could have kept watching for many more, I had to admire the artistry with which the writers ended the show. Parts of the series finale takes place in Brighton, a seedy seaside resort town where Mary’s ne’er-do-well ex is now living with his new family. The vacation spot is the perfect place for this character to end up, a brilliant nod to the “Disney Dad.”
In one shot, we are given a glimpse of the beach itself and, in an instant, I am back in 1988. “Look at those huge rocks!” I practically shouted to my wife. “That’s how the beach is there! Just rocks, no sand.” At the time, this observation gave me a new appreciation for American beaches with sand as soft and fine as sugar. I had shared this observation with friends many times over the years so the image of the rocky beach felt like an affirmation.
Later in the episode, a scene takes place on the massive Brighton Pier, with its gleaming white walls and carnival games and that too is just how I remember it. Once more, I am travelling back in time to that trip to England, our last family vacation before my father died. We are all laughing at my dad, who has put on a baseball hat with a fake brown turd on its brim and the words “Shit Head.” It’s a story that a close friend said seemed out of character for the serious political writer she had imagined. The ability to bring my father down to earth, to make him feel more human and real, made this a meaningful story and not just a fond memory.
The image of the pier sparked another memory, but more like a fleeting feeling I could not articulate. There had been another pier, a relic from Brighton’s heyday, when working class Britons flocked to the seaside for hard earned vacations, before cheap flights to Spain and the Chunnel. Then, suddenly, it was right there on the screen just as I had remembered it: the skeletal remains of crumbling pier. “The abandoned pier!” I exclaimed. “I can’t believe it’s still there.” It felt as if I had just seen a ghost and in some way I had.
What is it about ruins that fascinates us, that both attracts and repels us at the same time? Perhaps that is just it: their double nature, life and death in equipoise, neither fully one nor the other. They provide a glimpse into what came before us and what will remain after we’re gone. As Susan Stewart observes in her astute and scholarly study, The Ruins Lesson: Meaning and Material in Western Art, when we encounter a ruin, “[w]e are meeting presence on its way to absence. We become aware of the transience in time that is ours as well.”
That is what Covid has revealed: we are all ruins, sheltering in place but transient. Sitting on the couch with my wife, seeking some respite after yet another day of quarantine, I am transported to another time and place. I circle back to the past, this time taking my wife with me on the journey. I write down the experience and share it so that you, my reader, may also join me. That is the only way to travel in a pandemic: backward in time, inward in spirit, and toward one another.
Roy Karp, November 2020