Judging by the reviews, it should have been easy to love Loving Miss Hatto (BBC1 Sunday 23 December), Victoria Wood’s drama inspired by the story of classical pianist Joyce Hatto.
Glance at any review (examples are The Independent, The Daily Telegraph and Huffington Post Uk) and you have to conclude that anyone who didn’t find it magical, well-constructed drama is in a very small minority, perhaps a minority of one.
I tried to like Loving Miss Hatto, but couldn’t. It took an effort of will to stay with it beyond the halfway point. In fact, I stopped around 50 minutes in and came back several days later after reading the reviews, convinced that there was something I’d missed.
The last 40 minutes did nothing to changed my mind.
Loving Miss Hatto unfolds at a pace that makes The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey feel like a gallop through Middle Earth. This is Sunday night, post-dinner, in front of the fire TV. The sort of thing that made me feel old before my time, suddenly wanting to reach for my cocoa mug, and fill my hot water bottle.
There is a scene about halfway through Loving Miss Hatto when Joyce (Francesca Annis) and Barry (Alfred Molina) settle down to watch Monkey World on television. I like watching chimps on TV as much as the next person, but watching someone else watching Monkey World seems to me a step too far.
The Monkey World scene happens to be a turning point in the story. Everything up to that moment is backstory, explaining how Barry and Joyce come to be where they are. To get there we have started at Joyce’s funeral in 2006, then gone back to the young Joyce and Barry in the 1950’s. We stay there for almost 45 minutes, switching to the near past, and Monkey World, in 2005.
Mercifully, the scene is interrupted by the door bell. A gnome-like German music lover is at the door, and it seems that this is the moment where Loving Miss Hatto is finally going to take off. With memories of The Hobbit fresh in my mind, I wondered if another dozen music loving gnomes would also arrive at the door, followed closely by a wizard. Maybe another musical dish washing scene was on the cards.
This isn’t Middle Earth, though. Afternoon tea in Loving Miss Hatto is limited strictly to three and is all about reminiscing.
But we are finally approaching the point where Barry has the idea to fake a Hatto recording. The rest of the story – Barry’s elaborate efforts to produce recordings for an eager audience, and the eventual uncovering of the fakes – is compressed into the last half hour.
I was left with the feeling that there was a really interesting story trying to shake itself free from layer after layer of domestic detail, weighed down by references to macaroni and cheese, trips to the co-op, arguing about whether the answering machine has been set.
It did make me interested enough to do follow up reading. And the accounts from 2007, when the scandal was uncovered, make very interesting reading. The New Yorker and Gramaphone provide detail on the detective work that led to the fakes being unmasked.
All of which leads me to wonder if a script that focussed instead on the uncovering of the fake wouldn’t have made a better Loving Miss Hatto. It would certainly have been one that I could have loved a whole lot more.