Patrick Melrose is the latest show that will keep you up at night

by Diana Wichtel / 17 July, 2018
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Benedict Cumberbatch shines as an upper-class addict hell-bent on self-destruction in Patrick Melrose.

If we are in a new golden age of television drama, and we are, it’s a gruelling place to be. To watch Patrick Melrose after an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale is to feel, simultaneously, like cheering and resigning from the human race. The first episode has Benedict Cumberbatch, in the title role, chewing the scenery and all but chewing off his foot as he creates the most extravagantly choreographed portrait of a suicidal smackhead since Trainspotting.

The episode is titled, with epic irony, Bad News and sets a madcap pace. It’s London in the 80s. Patrick is the drug-addled child of rich, destructive parents. He hears his father is dead in New York. How did he die? someone enquires. “I forgot to ask,” muses Patrick. “I was too dizzy with glee. I’m sorry, I mean dazed with grief.”

In its forensically precise vignettes of British upper-class self-indulgence, power play and casual cruelty, Patrick Melrose sometimes resembles Brideshead Revisited, but without the romance. In an age of calculating the privilege of others, here is a lesson not to make assumptions. As we see when things unfold – or unravel, any advantage young Patrick has had is paid for by a life that resembles being trapped from toddlerhood in a gilded but particularly brutal circle of hell. A failed date reminds him, quoting Philip Larkin before she flees, “They f--- you up, your mum and dad.”

Along with the blood, needles and vomit, there’s the balm of bleak humour. When Patrick stops ingesting substances long enough to view his father’s body, he unwraps it as though it’s Christmas morning: “Is it Dad? It is. It’s just what I wanted. You shouldn’t have.” This in the midst of two days that will see Patrick ingest heroin, assorted pills and a truckload of booze, trash his hotel room and attempt, unsuccessfully, to defenestrate his father’s ashes.

It doesn’t help a viewer’s assessment of human nature that the novels of Edward St Aubyn, on which Patrick Melrose is based, are semi-autobiographical. Dear lord. The second episode cuts back to the 60s in the South of France where eight-year-old Patrick lives with his alcoholic American heiress mother and his father. David, once a doctor and now a full-time sadist, played with chilling brio by Hugo Weaving, fills in the time by tormenting his small family and anyone else who happens by. “Eleanor, I do like you in pink,” he tells his wife in company. “It matches your eyes.”

David is a marvel of psychopathic logic. “What felt like cruelty at the time was actually a gift, was actually love. I don’t expect you to thank me now.” His Lord of the Flies style of parenting possibly has something to say about the British public school system. “Education should be something of which a child can later say, ‘If I survived this I can survive anything,’” he tells the cowed dinner table. In this episode, the reasons for adult Patrick’s operatic acts of self-erasure snap horribly into focus.

By episode three, we’re in the 90s. Patrick is trying to remain clean. “It’s a f---ing nightmare, being lucid,” he observes. He attends a dinner party where he has to endure Princess Margaret while sober. “It’s a party,” someone tells him. “You’re not meant to enjoy it.”

One of the lessons of the series is that hell is other people, but one can’t really get by without them. The series is funny. It’s a horror story. It’s a portrait of a man trying to save himself. It’s brilliant. Apparently, playing Patrick Melrose was on Cumberbatch’s bucket list. The result should be on yours.

Patrick Melrose, Sky SoHo, 010, Tuesday, 8.30pm.

Video: SHOWTIME

This article was first published in the July 14, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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