Life After Life, review: a Groundhog Day period drama that makes you care about its characters

It’s BBC period drama time. Adopt the brace position. What crimes against historical accuracy are we about to witness? Which 21st-century preoccupations will be shoehorned into the script? Will Olivia Colman be in it?

With great relief, I can tell you that none of the above applies to Life After Life. It is a gorgeously-realised and entirely faithful adaptation of Kate Atkinson’s 2013 bestseller. The fact that it is a modern book, with a female author and protagonist, means that nobody has felt the need to tinker with the story. It has been transferred from page to screen with almost everything intact, including lines from the novel narrated here by Lesley Manville. 

Voiceovers can often be an ominous sign in television, signalling a director who lacks confidence in their own power of storytelling. But here it works fine. If you are a fan of the book – and millions are – this drama should be pleasing.

The story is a fantastical one. Ursula Todd is stillborn on February 11, 1910, the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck and only a young housemaid by the mother’s bedside. But then we cut to the same scene, and Ursula lives – this time a doctor is present. 

A few years later, she drowns while playing at the seaside. Then we spool back, live those few years again, and this time an artist painting seascapes spots the little girl in distress and rescues her from the waves. And so it goes on, with Ursula dying many times but being born again.

Somehow, she begins to intuit that death is around the corner and takes decisions that affect her life chances. “The world was a dangerous place but she was not powerless – quite the opposite,” the narrator informs us, although it does take Ursula several attempts to survive the Spanish ‘flu. 

Essentially, this is a literary version of Groundhog Day. It spans two world wars, and will eventually bring Ursula face to face with Hitler in a moment that could change the course of history. There is a danger of the story – structurally, it can never be more than a collection of vignettes – appearing lightweight or gimmicky. But the quality cast prevents this from happening.

In future episodes, Thomasin McKenzie will take over from the child actors Eliza Riley and Isla Johnston as Ursula. In episode one, the most striking role is that of Ursula’s mother, Sylvie, played by Sian Clifford. 

So often in period dramas, mothers are gentle figures – Lady Bridgerton in Netflix’s blockbuster series is just the latest example, channelling Little Women’s Marmee. But Clifford brings a welcome spikiness – the producers surely had her performance as Fleabag’s sister in mind when they cast her. Sylvie is short-tempered, undemonstrative, and unable to treat her daughter with uncomplicated affection. “You’re too old for that,” she tells Ursula, when the girl tries to curl up on her lap.

The purest love, in this first episode at least, is between Ursula and her younger brother, Teddy. It’s curious how affecting these scenes can be when you know that any tragedy that befalls them is likely to be erased in the next lifetime. 

James McArdle plays Sylvie’s husband, Hugh. His frequent absences are better explained in the book than they are here, and in the course of this first episode we were told precious little about him. Yet when he hugged his children before going off to war, I had a lump in my throat. It is a drama that makes you care about the lives of its characters, however many times you meet them.


Life After Life is on BBC Two on Tuesdays at 9pm

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