The Virtues, episode 1 review: Stephen Graham is brilliant – but this gut-wrenching drama was so hard to watch

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Stephen Graham and Shea Michael Shaw in The Virtues
Stephen Graham and Shea Michael Shaw in The Virtues Credit: Channel 4 

Can television be too emotionally intimate? That was a question I kept asking myself throughout The Virtues (Channel 4), the gut-wrenching new four-part drama from Shane Meadows – creator of the This is England trilogy, one of the most powerful TV series of our time. The Virtues was co-written by five-time Bafta winner Jack Thorne, who also won an Olivier for the West End smash Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and stars Stephen Graham, fresh from Line of Duty, as Joseph, a father facing up to life without his young son, as his ex and her new partner prepared to uproot and start again in Australia.

Graham is an actor of raw emotional power, nakedly honest and unpredictable, but I spent whole minutes of the first episode wanting to be anywhere else but in a room with him, as he suffered and tried to deal with his suffering. Not because his performance wasn’t brilliant, but because it was. As he put on a brave face and told his son that it was OK to call his new stepfather “Dad”, then performed a display of bonhomie as he tried to booze the pain away, with the nagging threat of violence or humiliation, it was so uncomfortable it was almost unwatchable.

Television evolved to let us get close to people. Vast landscapes that inspired awe in a Western at the Odeon seemed small on a box in the living room. But flickering images of faces were larger than the photographs on the mantelpiece, and sometimes felt more present. Close-ups could show hurt or confusion in the eyes, a flash of anger, the trembling of a lip. Realism ruled.

Nowadays the twin-track evolution of TV and film seems redundant: people digest widescreen epics on their phones on the bus, and watch tête a têtes on TV screens that cover whole walls of their homes. But this felt like television built on first principles, which could have slotted in alongside Up the Junction or Cathy Come Home, as an updated episode of the Sixties drama strand The Wednesday Play. 

The camera refused to leave Joseph, even putting his head in a drunken bubble of compromised consciousness. His feelings were unavoidable. Even in oblivion, with vomit on the carpet and blood in his hair, there was still no escape, for him or for us. The only door out of this misery was the photograph he kept looking at, which promised a simpler narrative to come, one we’re used to, of a mystery to be solved and resolved. The rest was just too real, and if that sounds like a virtue, then so be it.