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Life Begins - Series 1 (DVD)

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Genre: Television - Life Begins / Theatrical Release: 2004 / Suitable for 15 years and over / Director: David Caffrey, Charles Palmer / Actors: Caroline Quentin, Alexander Armstrong, Frank Finlay, Anne Reid ... / DVD released 2005-04-18 at ITV DVD / Features of the DVD: PAL

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      06.10.2009 12:37
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      A sensitive, but funny, look at a marriage break up

      Maggie Mee - 39 and married with two children - thinks that her life is going well, until her husband Phil throws a spanner in the works. He isn't happy with the marriage and wants some time out to decide what he wants from life. Devastated, Maggie has no choice but to pick herself up and carry on for the sake of the children. Worse is to come when Maggie discovers that Phil is seeing someone - a successful blonde from his place of work - and that she is going to have to go back to work to make ends meet. Slowly, life begins to improve for Maggie though and she feels more hopeful about the future, aided by her new work colleagues and old friends. But will Phil come back and ruin things when he realises that Maggie is attractive to other men?

      Maggie is played by Caroline Quentin in a role that I have to say I truly appreciated, mainly because my circumstances are similar, albeit minus the children. Quentin will always be Dorothy from Men Behaving Badly for me, and in many ways, this role is a continuation of that - things she says and does could have come straight out of an older Dorothy's mouth. However, Maggie isn't quite as comic - there are some truly funny moments, particularly involving a dildo, but there are also some very sad ones, particularly at the beginning just after the break up. I would perhaps have liked to see a bit more angst - she does seem to pick herself up amazingly quickly - but then watching a woman weeping and wailing wouldn't have made great TV. I don't think this is particularly a role that stretches Quentin, but she is convincing in the role and I could really identify with her predicament. Most of all, she has the 'likeability factor' and her zest for life is infectious - a real encouragement to the many women (and, to a certain extent, men) who find themselves in the same situation.

      I've always been a fan of Alexander Armstrong, although I'm more familiar with his comedy roles than his straighter ones - and as Phil, there are precious little laughs here. That isn't to say he doesn't give a good performance though, because he does. Although Phil is selfish, Armstrong manages to keep the role real enough that you can't completely hate him. I don't think this is going to be a role that I equate Armstrong with in the future, but it is a competent one. It would be unfair to avoid mention of Maggie and Phil's children, played by Elliot Henderson Boyle and Ace Destiny Ryan (crikey) - they are slightly precocious, but are nevertheless very reminiscent of every almost teenager that I have ever met.

      I really enjoyed Anne Reid and Frank Finlay as Maggie's parents. Reid plays the over-bearing mother, overly critical of her daughter, very convincingly, but she really comes into her own when her husband is diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Maggie is much closer to her father and is devastated to find that he is slowly forgetting things that he has always known - Finlay manages it very well without turning the role into the farce that it could have been. Finally, Maggie's friends, played by Claire Skinner and Stuart McQuarrie, who add a touch of humour and lots more of the 'likeability factor' to the proceedings.

      I missed most of the series when it was televised (there have been three series so far, between 2004 and 2006, and there may be a fourth), and I'm actually quite surprised that the audience figures, which were in the region of 10 million during the first series, were as high as they were. I suspect Quentin's success in Men Behaving Badly didn't do it any harm, but really it is something that I would have thought was only relevant to women, like me, 'of a certain age'. However, in hindsight, perhaps it is light-hearted enough to appeal to people of differing ages. It certainly is an inspiring story to see Maggie, and, after all, every Brit loves an under-dog.

      The humour is nicely under-stated, and, I would imagine, is going to appeal to a British audience more than any other. It is occasionally quite cheeky, with some sexual innuendo, and the occasional appearance of Maggie and Phil in bed, but not with each other. And then there is the dildo. I thought the dildo scene was hilarious, but obviously it is not appropriate for children, hence the rating of 15. There is also a scene with one of Maggie's colleagues after she has had an abortion. I think this could have been a more important part of the plot, but, probably for ratings' sake, the powers that be cut it as short as possible.

      One of the best things about the series is that the episodes are a meaty forty-five to fifty minutes. This really enables us to get to know the characters and come to care for what happens to them - or not, as the case is with Phil! All too often, ITV opt for the shorter sitcom length of half an hour (more like twenty minutes with adverts taken into consideration). As it is, I was left with the feeling that I was watching quality entertainment that wasn't cut too short. Unfortunately, the six episodes of the first series over two discs is all that we are given - there are no extras, unless you count scene selection and subtitles. However, that isn't a great surprise, and the quality of the episodes kept me quite happy.

      I really enjoyed watching this series and wish I had paid more attention to it when it was televised. It is a great combination of comedy and drama, and it looks at that portion of the market that I think is often neglected - the late thirties/early forties woman who finds herself dumped. Then again, I would say that, being one of them. Whatever, the show was hugely successful, so clearly I am not the only one that enjoyed it - if you haven't seen it yet, it is definitely worth a watch. Recommended.

      The DVD is available from play.com for £3.99! Bargain.

      Classification: 15

      Running time: 276 minutes

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        13.08.2009 10:00
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        Brilliant British Drama

        Life Begins began its first series showing your everyday family setting off on holiday with friends. Phil is married to Maggie and they have two children, James and Becca who are approaching their teenage years. As far as Maggie is concerned it is going to be a normal holiday. That is until Phil tells her he is moving out. The holiday is cut short, much to the childrens dismay and Phil packs his bag and goes to stay with a friend from work.

        This pretty much leaves Maggie at a lose end. Something I imagine is extremely common in situations like these. She is left with the house, the children and the car, all which need money-something what she has very little of, especially as she has been a stay at home mum for the past 12 years. Phil is doing his best to be awkward on the money front and is providing her with a pittance meaning that Maggie will need to go out and find a job, something that is going to prove increasingly difficult for a 39 year old woman whose been out of work for over a decade and has never heard of Microsoft Word! Alongside all this it becomes apparent that Maggies father, who she loves very dearly is becoming rather ill which just adds more stress to poor Maggies life!

        I really enjoyed this drama. I remember watching it when it was on ITV about 5 years ago and thought I would rent it on DVD because I enjoyed it so much. Caroline Quentin as the role of Maggie performs tremendously and I believe to be perfect for the character due to her acting abilities and the viewers being able to relate to her so well. The fact that she seems so normal and real to life makes the drama ever so realistic and makes it a very heartwarming drama. Alexander Armstrong plays Phil and at the beginning I couldn't help but like him but as his antics went on I found it easier to dislike him!

        The introduction of Maggies fathers illness really added to the drama as I think it helped Maggie realise that there are other things in life than her seperation and this is far more important. The acting skills used here by all characters concerned is very strong, Frank Finlay does an excellent portrayal of her father, making the audience really feel for Maggie and begin to understand how hard it must be to go through something similar.

        Although both of the children are rather young in the drama, Ace Ryan and Elliot Henderson-Boyle do a fantastic job of portraying the children who really are stuck in the middle and wish everything was how it used to be. I especially believe the character of Becca (Ryan) to be very strong as she portrays the character of Daddys girl very well.

        Although this is a drama based around a not so happy time, there are a number of comedy moments in the series. Caroline Quentin works these well and they come across as traditional and very true to life.

        The series was first broadcast in 2004 and the DVD was released in 2005. It was directed by Mike Bullen. The series 1 is spread over 2 discs and lasts for 276 minutes. It is available from amazon for £13.98. If you enjoy this dont forget to watch the second and third series too!

        I would recommend this to anyone who has experience similar, enjoys a good drama or who likes Caroline Quentins work. It was well prepared and thought out and the acting skills are impeccable.

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          17.04.2009 17:01
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          Simply one of the finest British drama series ever made.

          Who hasn't been there? The chances are that if you live in Britain you'll have some experience of divorce, be it your own or that of a friend, neighbour or family member. And it's painted as a really crappy thing. Interesting, then, that somebody should make a television drama about how a divorce can be the start of something great; a new lease of life. That's exactly what Cold Feet creator Mike Bullen has done with Life Begins.

          The series begins with the Mee family - Maggie (Caroline Quention) and Phil (Alexander Armstrong) taking their children Becca and James on holiday. However when they arrive it becomes apparent that Phil isn't happy, and he tells Maggie he's going to move out. Needless to say they drive home at once. Throughout the remaining five episodes, everything changes in Maggie and Phil's lives. She's forced to return the work, eventually finding a job in a travel agents, whilst he shacks up with the (allegedly) attractive Anna, an uptight high-flyer with perkier breasts. Maggie's father Eric (Frank Finlay) is diagnosed with alzheimers to the great concern of both Maggie and her mother Brenda (Anne Reid).

          The acting in the series is top-notch; Caroline Quentin is always given comedic or light-hearted gigs, but here she has found her perfect role; straight and reasonably serious, but with an incredible amount of laughs for what is primarily a drama. Everything from the superbly sharp scripting to Quentin's perfectly-judged facial expressions and the timing of her delivery make for six episodes packed with giggles. Armstrong nails the slightly meek and confused persona as Phil, who doesn't appear even to know why he's leaving Maggie. He shares considerable chemistry with her and when on screen together they appear to have a strange sort of understanding for one another's frames of mind, which is remarkable given that he has just walked out on her.

          Of course many series enjoy a strong lead cast, but the supporting characters need to be believable too and here Life Beings really excels. Two particular favourites of mine are Maggie's colleague Helen and her mother Brenda. Helen has utterly perfected that look of sheer exasperation, and she uses it at every available oppurtunity; when discussing men, when being lectured by her boss. It's not until she aborts the baby planted by her on-off boyfriend Chris that she opens up and we see the real, vulnerable girl behind the steely stare. Brenda is also exasperated, as well as being hard to please and hilariously shrill. Anne Reid plays her with a formidable icyness, and there's one especially poignant moment when Eric walks in on the coffee morning she's hosting for her friends, giving one of them his condolances for her husband's prostate. He's got things - and people - muddled of course, but the obvious embarassment on Brenda's face speaks such a great deal about Eric's condition.

          What's also remarkable is the way that middle class lifestyles have been captured in a which is neither superior nor inferior, just as problematic as any other. Ellie Haddington has the role of concerned mother hammered as Maggie's neighbour Kathleen, who just can't help but voice her opinion about the boy her daughter Sam has opted to date. It's a typical well-intentioned-mother-puts-foot-in-it scenario, but the way it's resolved is heartwarming. There's also a brilliant moment when Sam discovers something naughty in the bathroom whilst staying at Maggie's house (having rowed with her mother). The stupid grin on her face perplexes Maggie... for a moment. In the fourth episode, Maggie decides to find a hobby to take her mind off her problems, so she and Guy, husband of her best mate Clare, dust off his old motorbike and zoom off to a biker's convention. Clare is left reeling with a silent jealousy at the fact that her husband has the most fun when he's with another woman - Maggie of all people! - and everything comes to a head at a children's party, when a shocked and shaken Maggie stuns the room with an emotional speech. It's as riotously funny as it is sad. One running joke through the series is Clare and Guy's concern for their young son's sexuality. When his dad suggests a game of football in the garden, he chirps "Great! I'll get the handbag." You'll not stop laughing for a long time.

          I genuinely can't think of a valid criticism of Life Begins. It's everything you could ever want from a drama; realistic, sad, moving, and darkly comic. The music is wonderful too; the opening and ending credits use downtempo tracks by the UK dance act Faithless, and it works surprisingly well. The icing on the cake is the DVD packaging for series one. A ten-second series of voice clips recap the events of the previous episode and it's evident that a lot of time was spent making the menu look smart. In short, this is an absolute must-buy.

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