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In Back to Life, an ex-con fights against the odds to resume a normal life

Back to Life, TVNZ OnDemand. Photo/Supplied

Humour is tragedy plus time, so the saying goes, and in the case of UK series Back to Life (TVNZ OnDemand, from August 6), the exact length of time is 18 years.

That’s how long Miri (Daisy Haggard) has been in prison, during which smartphones have become ubiquitous, David Bowie, Prince and George Michael have died and Miri’s boyfriend has married and become a father.

It’s a story about beginning again when the odds are stacked against you. Miri goes back to living with her parents in the small seaside town of Hythe in Kent. She might be ready to move on, but some in the town are not. Her parents’ fence is graffitied and excrement is sent through the mail. Miri is battered by a brick thrown through a window and gets back up, bloodied.

All the while, the small, absurd details of life peep through, thanks to the scripts by Haggard and Laura Solon. Of the posters in Miri’s room, only Jamie Oliver is still alive. “Thank God, he’s still with us,” she remarks. Miri’s father, Oscar (Richard Durden), is obsessed with the environment; her mother, Caroline (Geraldine James), hides the knives.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Fans of Episodes will remember Haggard as the almost incomprehensible head of comedy, Myra, she of the strange facial expressions.

Back to Life came about because of a fascination with, she told comedy.co.uk, “how harshly we judge women who have done a bad thing compared with how we judge men. I was also fascinated with the idea that we are all probably just two degrees from having either done a terrible thing or having been involved in something in your teenage years that could have gone disastrously wrong.”

Miri is an adult beginner, “trying to start her life with all that is thrown at her and all the baggage she’s dragging behind her”. Haggard spoke to former prisoners about coming back after a long time away and there are many ostensibly mundane details that made it into the show, such as not knowing what to wear or craving fresh, crunchy food.

It’s this mix of poignancy and awkward cheer that has seen Back to Life spoken of in the same breath as Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s multi-award-winning Fleabag. “It’s an honour to be mentioned alongside it,” Haggard told the Guardian. “But I also can’t wait until there are so many female voices on screen that we don’t need to compare them.”

This article was first published in the August 3, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.