After watching BBC1’s one-off drama Mary & Martha on Friday night, I was put in mind of a quote from the blurb of Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. A writer for The Times said, ‘[Hosseini’s] not afraid to pull every string in your heart to make it sing,’ and the same could be said for Richard Curtis – who added another string to his bow by creating this very drama-heavy masterpiece.
The program told the story of American mom Mary (Hilary Swank) and British mum Martha (Brenda Blethyn). Following trouble at school, Mary decides to take her son George out of America for a while, and enlighten him on a trip to Mozambique, where they drink in the local surroundings and culture. Elsewhere, Martha is made to bid a tearful – but pride-filled – goodbye to her beloved son, Ben, who has chosen to help teach children in Africa. However, tragically, both Mary and Martha’s sons are struck down and killed by malaria. The two women have a chance meeting in Mozambique and immediately become friends, which leads to them joining forces to campaign extensively for the awareness and prevention of malaria. The mothers’ reactions are much the same as those of Lenny Henry and writer Richard Curtis, following the latter’s 1985 visit to Ethiopia.
Having huge faith in the renowned talent of Curtis, I watched Mary & Martha with high hopes – something which is dangerous to do, as you tend to end up disappointed. What I saw, however, met my expectations and perhaps even exceeded them. From Geraldine Grainger to Bridget Jones, Curtis is excellent when writing about strong women – and so it was with Mary and Martha. In addition to the wonderful script, impeccable casting made this programme a treat. As expected, Swank and Blethyn were perfect as the eponymous leads and there wasn’t one weak performance across the ninety minutes. I particularly hope that Lux Haney-Jardine has been cemented in casting directors’ minds, after his superb portrayal of George, Mary’s tragic son.
‘NEITHER CONDESCENDING, NOR OVERPOWERING’
Richard Curtis’s huge passion for the campaign was palpable. He managed to create a drama which was neither condescending, nor overpowering but instead saw him strike the appropriate tone and effectively show the devastating effects of malaria. The brilliant establishment of his characters and use of beautiful surroundings (despite it not being filmed in its setting of Mozambique) helped to convey the writer’s message: by rooting for, connecting and falling in love with Mary and Martha and being sucked in and awe-struck by the wondrous location, I inevitably understood and appreciated Richard Curtis’s mission – that being to raise awareness for and open our eyes to the unbelievable tragedies that occur daily in the Third World, while we carry on with our day-to-day Western lives.
In fact, that’s another thing which Mary & Martha showcased excellently. There was a particular scene, just after Mary returned from Mozambique to her luxurious life in the States, which saw her become angered by her friend’s unhappiness at her husband’s purchase of a Mercedes – which went against her wishes for a Lexus. Inspired by the writer’s feelings after he returned from his aforementioned visit to Ethiopia, this scene introduced a theme which, while it would not be as prevalent, would run throughout the remainder of the programme. It strongly and thought-provokingly contrasted our materialism with African poverty. It may seem unfair that multi-millionaire writer, director and producer Richard Curtis should be pontificating to us ordinary people of Britain about Western greed but it really did accentuate the preventable problems facing Africa.
‘DIFFICULT TO COMPREHEND’
As well as being a renowned comedy writer, Richard Curtis is also not averse to the occasional smattering of sentiment in his work (lest we forget the final scene in Blackadder Goes Forth – possibly the most devastatingly poignant conclusion to a TV series we have seen). Mary & Martha delivered this in abundance. It was so upsetting to watch George and Ben be struck by and die from malaria, aged 12 and 24, respectively. That’s how affected I was by watching two fictional characters I had only got to know over not much more than thirty minutes. It is horrendous to think and so difficult to comprehend that this happens to 665,000 people every year. In the time it took me to watch Mary & Martha, it will have stolen the lives of over 100 people across the world.
A third of the way into the program, I was already thinking of how much I would pledge to Comic Relief. Although the surroundings were stunning and made me jealous of those experiencing them, Curtis’s purpose for writing it shone through. The work of Comic Relief is vital. If it affected others in the same way it did me, I am sure that Mary & Martha will do wonders for the cause. Radio 1’s Gemma Cairney summed it up with this tweet, sent twenty minutes after the program ended:
TV producer and Holly Willoughby’s other half, Dan Baldwin, also posted this in summary:
Hear, hear, Dan!
TV shows seldom move me to tears, but Mary & Martha did. Richard Curtis didn’t need to use crude humour and vulgar language – exquisite, heart-rending drama sufficed.
Mary & Martha was made in support of Comic Relief. Red Nose Day is being celebrated on Friday 15th March, with the big event being broadcast live on BBC1 on that day. Visit the Comic Relief website to find out what’s going on and how to donate.
If you missed it, Mary & Martha is available on BBC iPlayer – just follow this link.*
What did you think of Mary & Martha? Do you agree or disagree with my review? Feel free to comment below or tweet me about this or any other TV show – @UKTVReviewer
You can also see my recommendations for the coming week’s TV on my YouTube channel.
*Available until Friday 8th March 2013