In a chilly conference centre in the commuter town of Gerrards Cross, Sean Bean and Nicola Walker are reflecting on their 27-year marriage. Well, not their marriage, but Ian and Emma’s, the middle-aged couple they portray in Marriage, a new BBC drama by Stefan Golaszewski, the 41-year-old writer-director of Bafta-winning sitcoms Mum and Him & Her. “They love each other very much,” says Walker. “But it’s not easy. Because it’s a marriage.” Bean chuckles in agreement. “A 27-year marriage? It’s fraught with danger.”
When we meet Ian and Emma – who share the agony of having lost a son several years before – he has recently been made redundant; his beloved, domineering mother has died; and the black dog sits at his shoulder. Emma is forging ahead with her legal career, increasingly drawn to her handsome younger boss, and worn down by the constant demands of her elderly father (played by James Bolam).
Their faltering relationship is depicted with often unsettling naturalism, as the viewer becomes voyeur to barbed airport arguments about jacket potatoes or long, wordless scenes of domestic torpor. As Bean puts it: “Not a lot happens, but, if you examine it closely…” He trails off and Walker finishes his sentence: “... a lot happens”. Bean nods. You could call it: Scenes from a Marriage.
After Ingmar Bergman’s bleak series of that name was shown on Swedish TV in 1973, the country’s divorce rate spiked. Pedants will point out that in the same year the law was amended to make divorce easier – but the Swedish national marriage guidance service did also report a surge in demand in the wake of the drama, and Bergman had to remove his number from the phone directory after he was inundated with calls for relationship counselling.
Golaszewski hopes his series will have a more uplifting effect on viewers. “There are a lot of stories told about the decadent or the angry, or the nasty, or the cruel. But I think most people’s lives are spent seeking togetherness, calm, joy and stability,” he says. “I hope viewers might be touched by it… and that no one gets divorced!”
Walker – who has been in a relationship since the mid-1990s with the actor Barnaby Kay, whom she married in 2006 – says: “There are lots of long relationships in my family and, to succeed at that, you have to do what Ian and Emma have done: step back sometimes, not always do what you want to do. Marriage is an act of negotiation. But the baseline is love. When you’ve been with someone for 30 years, life happens when you’re making them a cup of tea or sorting through the laundry.
“The good couples have worked out that it doesn’t happen in the dramatic moments, it happens in the mundane ones…” Bean, now 63 years old and married five times since 1981, chips in. “It’s happening now, isn’t it?”
Both Bean and Walker come to Marriage at the top of their game. He, having transformed his Hollywood hardman image via sensational, Bafta-winning performances in the Jimmy McGovern dramas Broken and Time. She, a household name at 52, thanks to her brilliant double act with Sanjeev Bhaskar in ITV crime drama Unforgotten, as well as her roles in The Split and Last Tango in Halifax.
They make for a captivating, plausible couple, even out of character. Walker is razor-sharp, garrulous, prone to thinking aloud. Bean – in sharp contrast to his gruff characters in Game of Thrones or Sharpe – is quiet, almost shy; Golaszewski describes him as “gentle”.
I ask Bean if he has deliberately sought out softer, more damaged characters in recent years – less obvious heroes, bearing fewer swords. “Nah, I don’t really think about that,” he says. “I just do what comes up, what I find exciting. It’s not about doing a softer character over a strong one.” His voice trails off as he considers the idea. “Even strong villains have their vulnerabilities.”
Golaszewski, as viewers of Mum will know, doesn’t do villains. He’s more interested in ordinary people living ordinary lives. Mum was praised for concentrating on the suburban existence – and love life – of a 59-year-old woman (Cathy, played by Lesley Manville), while Marriage dares to focus on a couple in late middle age. “It feels to me like you might make a turn at that age,” says Golaszewski. “There is a sense, with Ian in particular – a man in his 60s, older than technology – of starting to be left behind by the world.”
Above all, however, he intends his drama to be a celebration of marriage. “As pedestrian as people may think Ian and Emma’s relationship is,” says Walker, “ultimately they’ve got there. They’ve made it to 27 years.” Bean agrees: “They’re the ones who steady the ship…”, “…while slightly sinking,” adds Walker, “and bailing out at the same time.” More chuckling.
“And there’s no happy ending,” says Bean. “And no unhappy ending. It’s just life.”
Marriage is on BBC One and BBC iPlayer from 9pm on Sunday Aug 14