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Why Normal People is the best thing on TV – despite the hanky panky

Sam Delaney is thrilled by the ambitious BBC adaptation

Sally Rooney’s novel Normal Peoplewas the best book I read last year. It’s about a couple of kids who fall in love at school, then go to uni together and keep splitting up then getting back together again and so on.

It was the sort of book that made me initially think: ‘I could write something like this, all it’s about is a couple of people hanging around and talking to each other.’ But of course making such an ordinary premise come to life in such a tender, moving and compelling way is where the skill of it is. I could not write something like this. I am a dick.

I’m a grumpy 45-year-old who, I find, actually gets angry about too much hanky panky on the box

Rooney manages to conjure the drama and pathos from what her characters don’t say as much as what they do. Her two protagonists stumble from one unspoken feeling to the next, fumbling the words they say and misinterpreting the words they hear so that nothing ever seems to quite work out the way either of them would like. That’s life I suppose. We are all characters in a constantly unfolding farce; a pantomime of minor misunderstandings and withheld sentiments that conspire to shape our compromised destinies. That said, I myself am a bit of a gobshite in real life and have a habit of verbalising everything I think and feel really loudly to whoever is standing closest to me at any given moment. It doesn’t make life any easier, I can tell you.

Anyway, because Normal People was to do with emotional nuance, abstract feelings and the always befuddling inner-workings of the heart, it didn’t really scream out as a potential TV firecracker. There’s not a great deal of physical action or spicy dialogue. Mind you, there is a load of shagging which I suppose is appealing to some viewers. Not me. I’m a grumpy 45-year-old bastard who, I find, actually gets angry about too much hanky panky on the box these days. “It’s bloody patronising!” I shout at no one in particular while the rampant nookie plays out on my flatscreen. “Is this what they think I tune in for? Cheap titillation?!” Jesus, I’m a depressing cliché.

Anyway, my weird descent into a sexless, middle-aged curmudgeon aside, Normal People is an incredible series and should win all the telly awards going. Turning a book defined by that much silence, contemplation and lonely heartache into 10 half-hour episodes of beautifully gripping drama is a staggering achievement. The direction is pitch perfect. The acting dizzyingly powerful. The two leads, Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal, turn in performances that repeatedly punch you in the guts with just the tiniest of gestures. Sometimes people criticise the BBC. But who else would have the balls to turn a book this unsuited to telly into such a spellbinding series that also stays true to the original text? Well done everyone involved, I say. Just tone down the shagging a bit, it really is unnecessary. I mean, it’s not just boobs. You see willies and everything! I’ve written to my MP.

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Normal Peopleis on iPlayer @DelaneyMan

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