James Walton

Embarrassingly addictive: Channel 4’s The Couple Next Door reviewed

Plus: is Julius Caesar – The Making of a Dictator a sign that middle-aged posh blokes are back in with the BBC?

Preposterous, embarrassing mess: Evie, Becka and Danny in Channel 4's Couple Next Door

For years now, lots of TV thrillers have begun with a terrified woman running through some woods. But not The Couple Next Door. Instead, the first episode opened with the sight of an isolated cabin and the sound of a gunshot – and only then did a terrified woman run through some woods.

Why the woman was terrified we haven’t yet learned, but we do know who she is – because in the next scene, her pre-terrified self and her partner were moving into their new house in a quiet, well-heeled Leeds cul-de-sac where every adult not mowing a lawn was washing a car. ‘Hello, suburbia,’ said her partner, perhaps unnecessarily.

It was pretty clear that this six-part drama would be heroically unafraid of cliché

Already, then, it was pretty clear that this six-part drama would be heroically unafraid of cliché. Some viewers might even have found themselves wondering when the couple – by now named as Evie and Pete – would meet their first suburban swingers. 

To which the answer was approximately two minutes. On arrival, they struck up an instant friendship with neighbours Becka and Danny: she, a sexy yoga instructor; he, a sexy policeman. Granted, their hobby wasn’t immediately revealed. But it wasn’t long before Pete saw Becka opening her front door in stockings and suspenders to welcome an obviously ‘like-minded couple’. Shortly afterwards, he and Evie were the only guests at their barbecue, where Becka wore the kind of dress more usually associated with Liz Hurley at a 1990s film première.

Yet, while The Couple Next Door mightn’t be distinguished by the originality of its ideas, it does pile up the unoriginal ones at an impressive rate. Across the street lives Alan, a middle-aged man who has a telescope and isn’t afraid to use it, taking full advantage of Becka’s strange reluctance ever to close her curtains. Pete’s job as a local reporter means he’s hot on the trail of a powerful but corrupt local businessman, despite his editor’s stern warnings to drop the story. As for Danny, he’s engaged in a little corruption of his own, providing bent-copper security for the very same businessman.

Meanwhile, Evie is finding it hard to tear her eyes off Danny’s pecs. At one point, the two exchanged a meaningful stare as they loaded their outside bins in the rain before running into each other’s arms: a scene which turned out to be a dream, but which seemed no more improbable than plenty of other scenes that didn’t.

By all known criteria, The Couple Next Door is a preposterous, slightly embarrassing mess, never sure whether it wants to be a serious-minded exploration of dark psychological truths or an extravagant piece of high camp. The trouble is that, as preposterous messes go, it’s hard to resist. As one wildly implausible scene followed another this week, I gradually realised – to my own slight embarrassment – that I’m looking forward to seeing what happens next.

TV has, of course, always been influenced by other art forms, from the theatre to music videos, YouTube to Victorian novels. Now, with Julius Caesar: The Making of a Dictator, we can add another influence to the list, as this is essentially a televised podcast.

And to prove it, two of the main talking heads here are bona fide podcast stars: Tom Holland from The Rest Is History and Rory Stewart from The Rest Is Politics. Both bring to the programme the same calm, well-informed analysis that they do to their day jobs, with Holland exuding his customary bonhomie and Stewart his customary distaste for all forms of populism. Following their lead, the programme does a terrific job of guiding us unapologetically through a complicated story by joining the dots (for me anyway) between what we knew, what we half-knew and what we didn’t know at all.

At times, it possibly overdoes the ‘Romans: A Warning from History’ element, by drawing direct parallels between Caesar and – you guessed it – Donald Trump: parallels that, for one thing, can only inflate Trump’s ego even more. Nonetheless, as the struggle between the rabble-rousing Caesar and Stewart’s Republic-defending hero Cato intensified, it was obvious that the clash of populares (aka populists) and optimates (elites) is at least 2,000 years old.

Admittedly, the non-podcast visuals don’t add a great deal. On the whole, when one of the heads tells us that Cato was angry, we see an actor in a toga looking angry; when they say that Caesar had gained a new moral authority, we see another toga-clad figure looking authoritative. Nonetheless, with two episodes still to go, this feels like cheering evidence that the success of podcasts might be reviving the BBC’s confidence to have people (up to and including middle-aged posh blokes) who know about stuff tell us about the stuff they know.