The Life and Times of Vivienne Vyle
The Life and Times of Vivienne Vyle is the new Jennifer Saunders vehicle on BBC2, and is a beautifully played black comedy on the subject of day-time talk shows such as Trisha and, in the in no way rhyming nor scanning, Jeremy Kyle. Saunders plays the ego-driven title role in which she has a therapy show where she has people with deeply saddening stories but treats them all with contempt, insulting and belittling them. Miranda Richardson as her scraggy, cocaine-addled producer, Helena, camping it up rotten and acting like a spoilt child, accompanies her in this quest.
In the first programme Vyle has a couple on where the woman claims that her husband is not the father of her child and wants to prove it. This is the first that he has heard of it and is being wound up by a production assistant who then sends him out in a temper to shout at his wife. Vivienne uses her presence to bring him under control and then questions him. Whilst she is belittling him he gets angrier and suddenly punches her, hard. She falls off the stage and the incompetent security guard that comes to her rescue falls on top of her.
Whilst recovering in hospital we see a very fragile side to Vivienne’s character, as she wants to give up. Helena convinces her that she should come back whilst Fern Britten covers for her during convalescence. Britten’s cameo is nicely under-played as she says and does things completely against her normal TV persona. To help her back, Vyle is assigned a real psychologist, Dr Jonathan Fowler, played by Jason Watkins. He spots her problems and she takes an instant dislike to him. Helena immediately recruits him to work on the show.
When she gets out of hospital her fragility is further exposed by her desperation for a baby and her husband, Jared’s refusal. This is major strain on their relationship but Conleth Hill plays a suitable counterpoint as an aging bon viveur.
Sight gags and a little slapstick are offset by some dark moments. A beautiful scene is where Dr Jonathan is in Vivienne’s ear on the set for the show. The doctor is a novice here and Vyle the professional. He tells her what she can’t do and how she must act and she responds by talking to the camera as if on the show. He is bumbling along and she appears as the consummate professional whilst actually showing how callous that she is. As she becomes more annoyed by him she walks off set, appearing behind him in the director’s booth, completely flummoxing his perceptions.
After one episode, the Life and Times of Vivienne Vyle has the potential to be classic television. Saunders and Tanya Byron, who had the original idea, write the drama, satire and comedy excellently. All actors play their parts well including the background characters that may come to the fore in later shows. The subject may have been covered before but not in this way and Jennifer Saunders looks like she has both Thursday and Friday sewn up as French and Saunders return the following day.