TV & Radio

Rain Dogs review: Brilliant, bleak sketch of life at the arse-end of Rishi Sunak’s Britain

Could BBC One’s Rain Dogs be the first time a fairly explicit “glory hole” scene, complete with slurpy sound effects, has been transmitted on British television? The nearest precedent I can think of was a transmission of the biopic of the outrageous Sixties playwright Joe Orton, Prick Up Your Ears, but, from memory, there was no full-on fellatio in the bogs depicted. So Rain Dogs has at least made its mark for that.

That sounds a bit dismissive, but it’s the reverse. Sleaze – proper, depressing, tawdry sleaze; sleaze infused with danger and drink – is rarely portrayed with much conviction on the telly, but this eight-part darker-than-dark sort-of-comedy makes you just as uneasy as our hero of the underworld, peep show performer Costello. The not-so-good-time girl is played with the usual brilliance by Daisy May Cooper. After Cooper’s delusional, unloved, Kerry in This Country through the gaslit Nic in Am I Being Unreasonable? to this latest trial by humiliation, I sometimes wonder what compels the actor to play such battered characters. Anyway, she’s hit rock bottom, if you’ll excuse the expression, here.

Costello is a single mum, with a sweet daughter/accomplice Iris (Fleur Tashjian). In between plodding bored and half-naked around a pole in a joint in Soho, Costello spends her time just trying to pay the rent, like anyone else skint in London. Episode one, “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City”, sees her evicted, do a runner from a cabby, narrowly escape being molested by a pervert offering her a free “room” (ie broom cupboard) with unspecified “conditions”, sleep in a car and eventually get rescued by a strange friend, Selby. Selby, played by Jack Farthing, is a pretty, shabby, genteel posh public-school type who is just out of jail. On the basis of a few encounters at the glory hole and some success at the mahjong table, he secures enough cash in a day to get Costello and Iris their flat back.

We gather that Costello and Selby met at college somewhere, and they have an intense love-hate relationship. We’re also introduced, briefly, to her other friends, Gloria (Ronke Adekoluejo) – who is, if anything, even more chaotic than Costello – and Lenny, played by Adrian Edmondson as a geriatric version of his character in Bottom, with aspects of Lucian Freud and the much-missed experimental journalist Willie Donaldson.

Rain Dogs is about people living on the edge of economic and moral viability, with only their unreliable friendships to take the place of our long-broken welfare state. Later in the series, we find Costello trying to find a way up and out of her neo-Dickensian world, and along the journey there’s some excellent, loaded dialogue, like the exchange between Costello and her “landlord” after he’s persuaded her to put on a babydoll nightie to give him a cheap thrill. Observing that it’s a bit tight on her because the last single “mummy” he had staying suffered from an eating disorder, tells Costello: “Lovely, I like that a lot. You’ve got a food bank body.”

“What’s that?”

“Lots of carbs.”

The menacingly dingy rooms, public toilets, clip joints and ex-council flats are reminiscent of David Lynch’s 1986 classic Blue Velvet, and it takes a lot of meticulous attention to stained, frayed, cracked details to render a place just the right degree of disgusting to be believable. Everything’s like the worst squat you’ve ever seen. Farthing is quite outstanding as Selby, with his floppy hair and worn tweed overcoat immediately redolent of Richard E Grant in Withnail and I. He gives us a quite glorious homage to that classic, with a little bit of the one-time dandy of Soho, Sebastian Harley, thrown in.

Director Richard Layton, writer Cash Carraway, and the rest of the team, deserve great credit and, in time, some awards, for this evocative but bleak sketch of life at the arse-end of Rishi Sunak’s Britain, a country grown too used to the gross indecency of poverty. It’s a fine memento of our troubled times.

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