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Mayflies review – Martin Compston reveals hidden depths in this drama of death and betrayal

As soon as this gets bad – and it will soon – get me to Switzerland for a Hitler chowdown,” says Tully (Tony Curran) to his best friend Noodles, played by Martin Compston, in Mayflies (BBC One). Hitler what now, ask Noodles’ eyebrows. “Suicide bullet,” explains Tully.

We’re in a pub on the Ayrshire coast where fortysomething ex-teacher Tully, terminally ill from cancer and with four months to live, makes his indecent proposal to his best friend. “Don’t let me die like a prick.”

I don’t know which brave soul scheduled this bleak drama of death and betrayal for broadcast in Christmas week, but my respects to them for going heroically off-message.

Tully initially refuses chemotherapy and declines Noodles’ offer to pay for non-NHS treatment. “I’d rather die than go private,” Tully says, a commitment to public healthcare in extremis that makes me want to stand up and salute. Who of us dare have such principles with death hurrying near?

Anyone who has witnessed a loved one’s struggle for dignity and control amid the general rout of death, or been at a wedding where one of the couple is dying, will find the drama resonates. Writer Jimmy Collins, AKA Noodles, must keep his childhood friend’s one-way trip to Switzerland a secret, especially from Tully’s girlfriend Anna.

It’s not just because Anna is played by the always sweetly sympathetic Ashley Jensen that I feel Anna deserves better than that. She knows her beloved Tully is dying, and scarcely complains. “I’m not your cat to be kicked,” she says in a rare moment of hurt. When he snaps at her, as they cuddle on their bed, that he wants to be on his own, she tries to keep the mood light with gentle irony: “OK, I’ve got far more important things to be doing.” She hasn’t, of course.

Anna wants him to have chemo to defer the date of his death as long as possible. So when he proposes marriage, she agrees only on condition he undergo treatment. Chemo would, she thinks, give them a few more months together that she desperately wants. “I resent the fact that Jimmy’s had all these years with Tully and I haven’t,” she says.

But Tully has other plans. He will marry her, bin off the chemo then skulk off on a death trip arranged by his childhood pal. “Would he do the same for you?” Jimmy’s wife Iona asks when she learns her husband is embroiled in the scheme. “Without hesitation,” he replies.

Andrea Gibb’s adaptation of Andrew O’Hagan’s novel is very good at showing why the (to my mind) bananas axioms of close male friendship would make Jimmy agree to this secret pact. The episode begins with Jimmy at a reading from his book on the war poets, quoting from Robert Graves’ Two Fusiliers: “Show me the two so closely bound / As we, by the wet bond of blood”.

Tully and Noodles’ friendship was forged not in the trenches but in the 1980s, and their love for indie music of that era. Hence a soundtrack that gives near-contemporaries like me serial Proustian rushes – Skids’ Into the Valley, New Order’s Blue Monday, even the Cocteau Twins’ Pearly-Dewdrops’ Drops as Anna walks down the aisle. The Fall’s beguiling singalong classic Totally Wired gets an airing as Tully hurls himself round the living room blissed out and howling the relevant couplet: “I drank a jar of coffee / Then I took some of these …”

The adaptation is less successful in its schematic flashbacks to their teen years. At worst Mayflies is like a mashup of Trainspotting one and two, with the middle-aged blokes reminiscing over their cheeky chappie days nicking veg from neighbours’ raised beds, debating what instrument Karl Marx would have played were he a member of the Fall (glockenspiel, apparently) and rerunning that summer when Jimmy made his escape to Strathclyde Uni.

The nadir of these flashbacks is a clip from their band doing a cover version of Aztec Camera’s Oblivious. Teenage Tully may have a good voice but the only justification for that scene is the royalties that must accrue to Mr Roddy Frame.

Compston plays his role with restraint, something I hardly expected he was capable of as Vicky McClure’s ankle bracelet in Line of Duty. Like many a writer in a novel, his character, partly based on O’Hagan’s life, spends most of the drama observing, silently clearing away dinner plates as Anna and Tully argue. The more clamorous role is filled very finely by Tony Curran, as a character switching vertiginously from gallows humour to tearful terror at the dying of his light.

Given the two friends’ devotion to that era’s deadpan Manc swagger, the soundtrack missed a trick. Episode one cries out for something from that festive grinch Morrissey, such as the Smiths’ I Know It’s Over, with its near-death experience of a lyric: “Oh Mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head …” That would have been fitting.

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