We all have our own Manderley, don’t we? That place we return to in our dreams, over and over, like the second Mrs de Winter in Rebecca? For some, it’s childhood homes, running their fingers over the woodwork and pressing their noses against frosty windows and staring out at a murky, dreamworld landscape. Others imagine themselves in glamorous hotels, or celebrity parties, your slumbering self having the time of their lives. My suitcases have sat in many halls, and I’m spirited away to many locations while I sleep, but my favourite is a fictional house, on a made-up street, in a very real city, with five inhabitants who you could swear you’ve known for ever, filmed with a wonky camera from down the side of a sofa. Benjamin Street. London. A generation ago. This Life.
Unless it’s something we want to hear, the truth hurts, like really hurts, but does any truth sting harder than the inarguable fact that, no, we did not, as we claimed we would in the mid-nineties, grow up to become Anna from This Life? We may be divided over whether this tale of a few lawyers living in a nineties-shabby house in London, was actually any good or is merely yet another example of nostalgia drugging us into submission, but we can all agree that Anna Forbes was the best thing in it. A near-perfect character creation, despite her cartoonish ballsyness. At the time, she seemed like walking a statement of intent. Scores of women I know – and men, mainly gay, whether they were admitting that to themselves in 1996 or not – were enamoured by her frankness, her ferociousness, her fuck-ups, and her ability to smoke the hind quarters out of a Silk Cut like it was an act of revenge.
Women and men stalk the earth in all manner of animal print now, but Anna’s charity shop-chic leopard-effect coat immediately marked her out as a risk taker, someone who wanted to stand out, unafraid of comparisons to soap icons like Bet Lynch. The no-nonsense Glaswegian got all the best lines, hands down, and Daniela Nardini played that role like she’d lived it. It is said, often, that Anna was an early version of Fleabag – is this the case? Anna, I think, had more fire in her belly and, despite being younger than Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s excellent creation, had suffered more hard knocks. Anna was ambitious, came from a tough background and was determined to escape it, and she challenged people even if it risked destroying her career and personal life. Anna had no filter. By her mid-twenties, she had lived ten of Fleabag’s lives. Both fantastic characters, yes, but very different DNA. That said, some of Anna’s quips may well have been the foundations of Fleabag’s manifesto. But while Fleabag was at the centre of her own world – thanks to entitlement, her natural charm, and a bizarre knack for getting bank loans approved – Anna knew only too well she would have to fight for her place, to control her own destiny. She was much more concerned with the behaviour of others, and getting the same chances, or better, as they did; her raging ego and her debilitating imposter syndrome were in constant conflict. In an early episode, Anna sits on a bench, smoking, and watches a rich, middle-aged lawyer pull up in his convertible. “Only the old can afford to be young,” she says, wistfully, through a blue plume, a mixture of bitterness and admiration – like she’d once had it all and lost it, over and over again.
Anna is most remembered for her tough-talking, hard-boozing and monumental fuck-ups, but she was much more than that. To the casual observer, her borderline obsession with Miles seems an anomaly, at odds with her kick-ass attitude, but the nineties was full of otherwise wise and tough women losing their heads over insipid, but good-looking man-babies like Miles – chuck a Tic-Tac in any direction in any halls of residence and you’d hit a Miles, and a few beanbags away, slugging hard on a can of K cider, would be his Anna, kicking themselves at the stupidity and inevitability of it all.
But with a few exceptions, as inspiring as she was, none of us ended up being Anna from This Life. How could we be? The patriarchy would never allow it, for a start. I know scores of people decided to be lawyers after watching Anna and her housemates squabble over cases and whose turn it was to buy toilet paper, but embodying Anna’s personality wholesale would be far too risky and, frankly, hardly any of us have the guts for it. We are, then, I’m said to say, a mixture of the other ones, aren’t we? Instead of the vivacious Annas we imagine ourselves, we are the self-centred, boring, unfulfilled thwarted creatives like Egg. We are the mildly devious, uptight, impatient Millys. We are the childish, privileged, selfish prigs like Miles. We are the repressed, insecure dullards like Warren. We are hotheaded sluts like Ferdy. We are the irritating, but friendly, drifters like Kira. We like our home comforts and laddish sex like Jo. We are Rachel, a cow. But we are not Anna, we can’t be. There could only be one.
Imagine Milly and Egg doing Veganuary, and cheating behind each other’s back, imagine them at pilates, you can see them starting a blog, can’t you, and tweeting? Milly and Egg brandishing puntastic signs at the Brexit protests, or arguing with an Ocado delivery driver, or having a loft conversion or huge sliding doors fitted onto the back of their kitchen extension, campaigning against the opening of a Starbucks on their local high street. Would Anna do that? Would she bollocks.
If we are anything like Anna, it’s not her forthright attitude or even her burgeoning, style-bar version of alcoholism we’ve taken on. It’s her frailty, her inability to escape her past no matter how far she runs, it’s her shocking taste in one-nighters, her woeful judgement, her morose mooning over a man who doesn’t deserve it. Miles, a Tory dinosaur in the making, who definitely spits in his hand before masturbating. We’ve been there. Anna has a fabulous line in an early episode when Miles accuses her of being jealous of his girlfriend, who has just conspired to burgle the house.
“They say that when a baby is newborn, it doesn’t really understand that other people exist; it quite naturally assumes that the whole universe revolves around it,” she says, with the measured calm of a primary school teacher, before reaching for her spear and jamming it in his side. “YOU are that baby, Miles. You never got past that first stage. You never found out that not everything on this Earth has got to do with you.”
We would never have come up with that, though. We’re not Anna enough. And men like Miles don’t get told to fuck off enough. We may well be the Anna who does coke at work because she thinks she’s a baller, but gets busted and loses almost everything. We are the Anna who gets a glass of wine in her face for being impertinent and flirting clumsily with a respected colleague. We are the Anna who stares into mirrors and wonders where it’s all gone wrong. But we are also, maybe, the Anna who hopes for more. While we love Anna for her superhuman traits, and her two fingers perma-raised to convention, it’s her more human side, the failures and the false starts – but always getting back up again no matter what – that we can relate to. And maybe, just maybe, some of us fight back against the big guys a little harder remembering that she did too.
In a way, it seems strange that we hold Anna and her flawed, selfish housemates in such high regard now, but they were the “relatable characters” we hear so much about now – or I do, anyway. I doubt the characters were particularly intended to be as sympathetic as viewers eventually came to find them, but as terrible as they could be, as unkind as they were to others – think their general treatment of Miles’s early girlfriend Delilah, and Egg’s brief loathing of Warren, Miles’s homophobia toward Ferdy, Milly having zero truck with Rachel’s obsequiousness – when you identify with someone, even if they’re horrible, you warm to them. Along with the more melodramatic storylines, This Life nailed the petty minutiae of house-sharing; everyone had the one housemate everyone ganged up on, who they dismissed as ‘mental’ for causing ‘drama’ – usually these crimes were something very pedestrian, but in the nineties, when talk around mental health was non-existent unless someone had a very visible, life-altering breakdown, it was very easy to be shunned by your peers for showing even the smallest hint of the unusual. The characters themselves are consumed by envy and jealousy. Anna laments she’s not organised and calm like Milly; Miles is convinced Anna is out to steal his cases.
Maybe it’s not such a bad thing that our dreams of being Anna came to naught. Where would we be now? What happened to Anna once the series ended? We will never know because no follow-up was ever made and the characters were never heard of again. I like to hope it ended well for her, but Anna being Anna, with her talent for talking herself all the way to the gallows, there’s every chance it didn’t.
We can still rock leopard-print, though. Meet you outside for a Silk Cut in a minute, yeah?
The first series of This Life is available on BBC iPlayer.
Find out more about my books, which are available to buy and preorder, and are generally great.