When watching the BBC dramedy Sensitive Skin, viewers understand that getting old is hard, even if you’re gorgeous and rich like Davina Jackson (Joanna Lumley). Davina seems to live an ideal life: a wonderful and supportive husband (Denis Lawson), a funky central London apartment, and a great job working at an art gallery. But predictably, Davinia’s perfect facade is simply a cover for her midlife crisis, in which confronted with impending old age, her eye starts to wander. Added to her troubles is a horribly spoiled son, Orlando (James Lance), who blames his parents for his adult failures, and cannot seem to get through one conversation with either of them, without volleying some sort of passive aggressive dig. Davina also has a very troubled relationship with her older sister Veronica (Maggie Steed).
Those familiar with Lumley as the drug addicted fashionista from Absolutely Fabulous are in for a shock – Davina is nothing like Patsy. She’s hesitant and often unsure of herself despite her looks, comfortable lifestyle and great job. She approaches late middle age with trepidation and wariness. Her husband Al also doesn’t know how to age gracefully, and instead responds with bouts of hypochondria (abetted by an opportunistic doctor who only feeds Al’s fears). The two have settled into a rhythm that only recently Davina seems to resent, and daily encounters remind her of her advancing age which only makes matters worse.
Given the seriousness of Davina’s ennui, the show’s writer – Hugo Blick – presents each episode in suitably somber themes – the scenes of London are often gray and flat, and it rains a lot. Some will note a passing resemblance in Sensitive Skin to Woody Allen’s classic Manhattan. Like Allen’s film, interludes are given to expansive and panoramic shots of the cityscape (this time London), and the soundtrack is poignant classical music. Also Lawson’s style of performing is reminiscent of Allen’s screen persona: Al is a jumble of neuroses and ticks, stuttering and sputtering long passages of witty lines that will often end in a satisfying punchline; that’s not to say that any of this is derivative, but it’s certainly informed by Allen’s work.
Because of the grave tone of the show, some viewers may be put off – especially if hoping for a uproarious laugher. Instead, we get a very serious story, punctuated by moments of chuckles and once in a while, laugh-out-loud moments (a rebirthing exercise that Davina participates in, when on a feminist retreat is particularly hilarious). Blick’s scripts are well written and very well-paced, without dragging at any point (a danger when some scenes are devoted to Lumley staring glumly out of windows or onto choppy rivers). An interesting thing he introduces in the first series, before fading it out, is Davina’s conversations with human manifestations of her frustrations – now, on paper this sounds ridiculous, but it works; the imaginary people that pop up suddenly act as sort of a sounding board for Davina who has no one to discuss her inner turmoil.
The first series ends on a very sad note, and the second series deals with all the characters’ responses to the event. The tone shifts markedly too, become noticeably lighter. In fact, it’s such a pronounced shift, that it takes a couple episodes before the program settles, until it reaches a very satisfying conclusion. Other characters are introduced and some are pruned away, and plot lines are pumped up among some of the supporting characters most notably Veronica, whose financier husband may be an embezzler and Orlando who finds love with a woman Davina’s age.
Blick’s writing is excellent, but the work is elevated by the fantastic cast assembled. Lumley dominates with a stirring performance – arguably her best. She’s able to play the comedy, but she’s also wonderful and portraying the bruised sadness of a woman whose lost so much of her bearings. Lawson also brings wonderful warmth to his role which is arguably the “funniest” in the show. Prolific actress Jean Marsh also does wonders with her underwritten role as Davina’s best friend and confidante. Lance as the unbelievably unlikable Orlando also imbues his character with some wonderful shading – his character moves from being frustrating and infuriating to pathetic and sad (a fun trivia note: Lance guested on Absolutely Fabulous a decade or so ago, playing a lust interest to Lumley’s Patsy); and even though this is Lumley’s show all the way, the program is constantly threatened to be stolen by Steed as Veronica. It’s a joy to watch the two actresses work together: their scenes simmer with resentment, jealousy, anger and accusation. Some other familiar faces pop up including Patrick Barlow who worked with Steed and Lumley on Jennifer Saunders’ Jam and Jerusalem, Buffy the Vampire Slayer alumnus Anthony Stewart Head, and in a particularly inspired role, Maureen Lipman as an abrasive and brash feminist pundit.
While Sensitive Skin isn’t revolutionary television, nor is it particularly hilarious, it’s still a thoughtful, pensive story that should be watched. And while some early reviewers dismissed the show as depressing and a downer, it’s not – if you stick with Davina and crew and approach the show with patience, you’ll be rewarded by some surprisingly uplifting television.