The 7.39 (1 of 2): Episode Review

Is a railway romance a good platform for a lasting relationship? David Morrissey and Sheridan Smith book a one-way train…

George Meixner


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Is a railway romance a good platform for a lasting relationship?

David Morrissey and Sheridan Smith book a one-way train to Excitementville, bypassing Responsibiltyford and Mundaneton in the BBC’s new two-part drama written by David Nicholls. But is the story merely an unambitious cliché of a Brief Encounter replacement service?

Most disappointing of any aspect inside the programme was the decision of the BBC programmers not to reschedule the entire evening to broadcast the 7.39 at its misleading self-appointed time and choose the ironically timely 9pm slot instead. For one day or two, surely the Ten O’clock News could have been delayed due to leaves on the line or some sort of signal failure directed at Huw Edwards.

David Nicholls, author of best-seller One Day, choo choo chooses one train as his subject for this mini-series. The service in question is the daily commute of the 7.39 to Waterloo. Here, differently, but equally ground down by ‘real life’, David Morrissey and Sheridan Smith meet and strike up a relationship founded on the mutual acknowledgement of the esoteric frustrations of a daily commute via public transport. The friendship simmers with flirtation as slowly the novelty of conversation on a train turns to the realisation of the frisson they find in each other’s company. They can leave their domestic troubles at the door as they mind the gap and seek a way to have their buffet cart and eat it too.

The acting is superb, even if Smith is forced into stereotype by her role as foil to Morrissey, our protagonist. Nicholls’ ability to articulate the great unsaid, but instantly recognisable, gives the programme a consistently comfortable, charming and playful atmosphere. It is perhaps its greatest strength and weakness. In episode one, it lacked any of the counterpointing bite and pain that made One Day such a success. Perhaps the second episode will embellish the groundwork laid by the first, the next hour may pick apart and scrutinise with more reality the affect any affair would have on either family. Morrissey is actually happily married to Olivia Coleman, but wants something more and has two stroppy and ungrateful teenagers who are drawn with broad brushstrokes at this stage. Meanwhile Smith is engaged to a Duracell bunny in the shape of Sean Maguire, a fitness guru keen on baby-making in the country, not entirely to city-girl Smith’s liking. He is nice and dependable. Fans of Scott and Bailey may recognise the nature and impending trajectory of his character.

As a young man, Brief Encounter is not a natural part of my psyche. But the accusation of critics that the show is the Brief Encounter for the modern viewer does seem to be justified in some respects after some research.

I would suggest Briefer Encounter is a kinder summary.

The time-frames in the two ‘versions’ are on different scales. The 7.39 is a whirlwind while the film is zephyr-esque. Moreover, we have only seen 60 of 120 minutes. If silver screen-goers had their cine-reel cut short after 43 of 86 minutes no doubt they would have grumbled that events so far were unsatisfactory in containing and describing the whole story. For better or for worse, complicit in a youthful ignorance of some classics I should have seen by now, I don’t hold a nostalgic preservation for the 1945 treasure, which could be the reasoning behind the narrowly paralleled quandary explored in the film and yesterday’s TV cousin. It was new and interesting to me, probably built on an existing fondness for the film in some, but no doubt irked others

Therefore, let us let time tell. The thorny issue of a ‘remake’ may dominate critical discussion but in actuality, The 7.39 was not called Briefer Encounter or Brief Encounter: This Time It’s Personal. Stories need to be retold and aren’t necessarily rehashed because of a similarity in the conceit which carries them, be it cafe or train.

Returning to Nicholls’, he acutely airs collective truths: the mild thrill of sneaking into First Class, the morning winces of pain after a gym session designed to impress a girl and the illicit mint to conceal alcohol on the breath. The script was littered with such touches which were pitched excellently by the acting. Nice cinematographic touches included the view from under David Morrissey’s character’s bed. Morning moods were depicted by smoothly slipped on slippers, leaping out of bed forgetting them altogether and gingerly placed feet on the floor after the previous day spent at Smith’s gym.

The episode was thoroughly enjoyable despite the lack of any tangible jeopardy. This is bound to surface tonight as the bubble of the 7.39 expands to burst with Fairy Liquid-induced red-eyed stinging pain for the two families as yet unaware of events which are gradually spilling outside the confines of a single brief encounter on the train. Will Morrissey ruin the Smiths dreams yet again? Or will Smith produce another profusion of pain for Olivia Coleman to demonstrate her growing reputation for versatility in tragic-dramas such as Broadchurch, Run and most recently The Thirteenth Tale.

Yes, The 7.39 is safely pedestrian, lacking the cut-and-thrust of a Sherlock or creeping nightmare of a Whitechapel, but trains must reach a range of termini, not just Excitementville.