When Normal People arrived on screen one month into the first UK lockdown, it had an unenviable task. We needed it to live up to the hype of one of the finest novels of recent times. We needed it to be perfect.
But how could a television series hope to match the emotional intensity and raw honesty of Sally Rooney’s book, that seemed somehow able to look directly into the hearts and souls of two lovestruck young people?
Paul Mescal’s performance as Connell, all repressed emotion and open-heartedness, has rightly been heralded as star-making. But let’s not forget that Daisy Edgar-Jones, as Marianne, did all the heart-wrenching, all the passion, all the angst and insecurity, all the break ups and make ups, but backwards and gazing out from beneath a highly influential fringe.
While Connell was popular, sporty and smart, Marianne was proud, lonely, privileged and, whisper it, equally smart – waiting out her unhappy schooldays until she could blossom on a bigger stage.
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Understated storytelling is just as hard to pull off on screen as it is in print. But, again, anew, we were drawn in to the lives of Marianne and Connell just as the two young protagonists are repeatedly drawn together. The best telling of young love and its complications you could hope to see, brilliantly adapted and acted with supreme skill.
Like the book, the series made storytelling this beautiful look simple. And it really isn’t. But how did it feel to be right at the heart of Normal People? To watch your star rising as more and more people became addicted to this beautiful, intimate TV drama, at precisely the time we were all keeping our distance from each other?
No one to celebrate with. No one to recognise you in the street. And no big budget new movie to cash in with as the entertainment industry, like so many others, shut down for large parts of the year. We asked Daisy Edgar-Jones…
The Big Issue: How did it feel being part of a huge hit that everybody was talking about?
Daisy Edgar-Jones: It’s true to say that the impact of Normal People took us by surprise. We knew it was a great story with a brilliant team making it, and of course the book was a huge hit already, but there was something extra that seemed to happen through being in lockdown when the show was released. I think it was a heightened experience for many people – whether that was about being connected when we had to be apart or about nostalgia for first love, it felt like touched people on a deep emotional level.
The initial release of the show felt like a surreal video game I was playing as my only interaction with it was through my phone
And how about becoming hugely recognisable during lockdown when it was difficult to see anyone, celebrate or even go out?
To be honest, it was something that was very difficult to actually register at the time, the whole experience felt like a strange dream as the world was already topsy turvy and the show coming out just added to the strangeness.
This has been anything but a normal year – and most definitely not for you. Have you had time to reflect on the impact that Normal People has made?
This definitely won’t be a year I will be forgetting any time soon! I have had some time to make sense of the impact within the last few months.
The initial release of the show felt like a surreal video game I was playing as my only interaction with it was through my phone.
But during the summer when lockdown lightened and I was able to see more of my friends and leave the house, I definitely realised how many people the show had actually reached and what that meant for me and my career. The show has definitely opened doors for me, which I feel very lucky about.
How has this year changed you – in terms of your career but also in terms of lockdown and the chance for reflection and re-evaluation it offered?
Career wise the show coming out has definitely opened doors for me, which I feel very lucky about. In terms of lockdown reflection, I now appreciate all the more the social aspects of life. I will definitely make more of an effort when I can, to go out and see my friends, go to the theatre, see live music, eat at restaurants and not take any of that for granted.
And what are your hopes for 2021?
On a personal level, I hope I am able to see my grandparents and give them a hug. Politically I hope we can be less divided. Culturally, I hope theatres, music venues and in fact all the arts, who have been hit so hard, will thrive and will be all the more appreciated for telling the stories which have the potential to make us a more empathetic society.
Normal People is on BBC iPlayer