"All aboard the unsinkable soap opera"
by Jasper Rees
28 April 1994
Once upon a time, the name Lynda La Plante suggested a woman with
a typewriter, a vocation for research and a knack for one-word titles.
Now it's almost a registered trademark, with a volume of output
to rival Barbara Cartland: a genuine drama by La Plante, like a
portrait wholly painted by Raphael, is a rarity. Nowadays she writes
with a workshop. If you pitch an idea to her, make sure it's about
a bunch of blokes with domestic difficulties bonding in a perilous
workplace. You could call it Choppers, about helicopter cops,
or Loggers, about lumberjacks, or Stackers, about
the people who replenish supermarket shelves.
The Lifeboat (BBC 1), like most of La Plante's current work,
is something that she "devised." That's television parlance
for laying the foundation-stone having the idea of doing
a drama about the RNLI [Royal National Lifeboat Institution], writing
the first episode and farming out the other eight so she could move
on to research another low-life subject for Prime Suspect.
The series is set in Pembrokeshire, so if it fails it won't be because
of the photography. In Part 1, the sea is a vibrant blue mirroring
the sky. If the sun shines for the rest of the series then the rigorously
accurate La Plante will have got at least one of her facts wrong.
In the first episode, "Troubled Waters," the Penrhys
crew were bidding against a rival for a new boat. The booby prize
was an inflatable with no radar. When a local fisherman's net got
trawled up in a mine, they grabbed the chance to impress the new
young inspector. And the script grabbed the chance to make a big
noise. Splash! Bang! Just watch this drama explode on to your screen.
However high the octane in a series about a rescue service, success
will always depend on how gripped the audience is when no one's
life is in danger. After this brief introduction, it's too early
to say whether we're going to get on with these characters, but
Leslie Parry, an ursine Irish builder (Brendan Gleeson), seems a
complicated enough cove he cheats on his wheelchair-bound
wife, Vera, and employs Pete, the fatherless son of his lover Bronwen.
The pub-running Bibby family has a volcanic father/son squabble
in its midst, and mechanic Hughie Jones (Karl Johnson, who has aged
a bit since he played the sensitive waif Paul Morel in Sons and
Lovers) has a problem with his eyes which will doubtless provide
a plotline worth hanging around for.
The second rescue, providing the core of the opening plot, took
place at night, when a wastrel called Rufus Myers Lloyd a
well-observed sketch of a young Welsh toff with a privately educated
accent (Peter Wingfield) took his love-child out on
a boat to buy drugs (yes, La Plante had to get them in somewhere).
The engine flooded, the boy sent up a flare, fell in, knocked himself
out and died during mouth-to-mouth resuscitation: The Lifeboat's
first body. At BBC Wales they'll be hoping it's the first of many.
The series represents their chance to weigh in with a long-running
drama after Civvies, Thicker than Water and the sublime
Old Devils. This soap on a boat doesn't look like sinking.