Weepy dramas are not uncommon on TV, offering audiences a chance to shed some tears, be it for feel-good or feel-sad reasons. But while they can be easy to dismiss from a distance, they fulfill an important function: there is an essential catharsis in experiencing tragedy through art, particularly when shared with a nationwide group of viewers. A Song for Jenny, broadcast by the BBC this week to mark the 10th anniversary of the 7/7 London bombings, is a heart-rending example of the cathartic power of TV.
The film, adapted by Frank McGuinness from Julie Nicholson’s book, follows Julie as she tries to find out what happened to her daughter, Jenny, who was travelling in London that morning. For the first 45 minutes, it is an examination of hope in the face of tragedy, as Julie frantically searches for numbers to call and alternative possibilities to explain events. She goes to a hospital for the bombing victims, only to be faced with questions about Jenny’s appearance. Call if you need anything, an officer tells her. “How many people have you said that to?” comes the reply.
Emily Watson, one of the UK’s finest actresses, is hugely moving to watch: she has always excelled at conveying feeling with the slightest glint in her eye, or smile playing at the corner of her mouth. Here, the twinkle has gone. Her face is blank and distraught. It’s a horrifically honest performance that brings to life exactly what Julie was going through: a priest as well as a wife, there are political, spiritual and maternal sides to her anger and pain; a complex cauldron of emotions that gives McGuinness deep material to explore.
His script, though, is as sincere and straightforward as it is possible to be: almost everything in it comes from Julie’s memoirs, from the sweet moments between parent and daughter (when being ordained, Julie reveals to Jenny that she is wearing red, lacy underwear) to the CS Lewis book Jenny was reading on the train. That non-manipulative truth gives the smallest moments the biggest impact, as the family discover halfway through that Jenny is dead. One scene in a kitchen is shattering to behold, as Julie is asked if she’s OK. Of course she’s not, she exclaims, breaking down. Her child has been murdered.
The focus remains almost entirely on her – flashbacks to the 7th July commute are tasteful and brief – which means that her relatives never get the screen-time to register their own mourning. But that only magnifies Watson’s towering, desperate, sad performance.
The same power resides in the happier scenes too, as warm memories contrast with the coldly lit living room of the modern day. The explosion itself is only seen through a young child acting it out on the sofa – not a moment of comic relief, as such, but merely another person trying to process what took place. Amid all this tumultuous tragedy, it’s the tiny chinks of kindness that bring you to tears: a gesture of good will from a cab driver is as comforting as it as devastating. Like the rest of it, it’s doubly so because it’s real: respectful and heart-wrenching, A Song for Jenny is a rare insight into the raw anguish of loss. A decade after the terrorist attack, it brings a country together in a cry of bereavement, a prayer for grief and a hymn to a mother’s courage.
A Song for Jenny is available to watch on BBC iPlayer until 4th August.
Photo: BBC/Robert Viglasky