BBC Four proves once again that it’s the best weapon we have in our defence of the License Fee with its acquisition of Don’t Ever Wipe Tears without Gloves, a three-part Swedish miniseries about a group of gay men who must deal – either actively or passively – with the awful consequences of HIV.
The meteoric rise of Scandinavian drama in recent years has been all but unstoppable, with shows such as The Bridge, Borgen and The Killing attracting universal acclaim. Don’t Ever Wipe Tears without Gloves shows that this trend is in no danger of ending anytime soon. Set in Sweden in the 1980s, at the height of the HIV epidemic across much of the Western World, the series follows Rasmus (Adam Pålsson) – a closeted freshman at the University of Stockholm who has left the small, backward town in which he grew up behind to embark on a journey of self-discovery – and Benjamin (Adam Lundgren) – a young Jehovah’s Witness who must attempt to juggle his religious beliefs with his homosexuality – as they both try to find meaning and understanding within the city’s gay community.
The first episode, which focuses on how our two main characters first meet, is a confident and accomplished piece of writing that does an excellent job of laying the foundations for what we already know is coming. The story begins at the end, with Rasmus at death’s door as a result of HIV, and then proceeds to show us how our characters came to be in such a heart-breaking situation.
For just under an hour we get a sensitive but realistic portrayal of the era that captures the difficulties many gay men can encounter in accepting and embracing their sexuality without ladling on the melodrama. The script offers a wonderful combination of wit, drama and impending tragedy, while the non-linear narrative helps to establish a sense of unease and dread; we know how this story ends, and the writers ensure that we never forget the tragic, real-life circumstances upon which it is based.
Perhaps the best thing about this show is that the drama is beautifully-realised. It isn’t manipulative or contrived, it’s just very raw. The first episode lays the foundations for a gut-wrenching journey ahead with a relatable story that is less about HIV than it is about isolation and self-discovery. The characters are complex and fascinating, and both Pålsson and Lundgren do a wonderful job of portraying them. Pålsson in particular grants Rasmus a faux-confidence that is recognisable but suitably hushed. The characters that Rasmus and Benjamin meet on their journey are interesting, fully-fleshed men with distinct personalities who refuse to conform to stereotype, which in itself is hugely refreshing.
What struck me most, however, was that it all felt surprisingly contemporary. It explores timeless themes – such as what it’s like to discover and embrace your sexuality (and the promiscuity that can accompany such a discovery), homophobia and the conflict between small town mentality and the liberalism of the city – in a manner that feels fresh, modern and thoroughly engaging. It doesn’t ask us to focus on how much things have changed, rather it examines the unspoken truth that a large number of these issues are still prevalent today. The escape from the closet can be daunting, especially when you come from a conservative or religious family, and the show captures the idea that whilst homophobic attitudes might not be rife they do still exist rather perfectly.
There’s a line near the start of the episode that gets right to the heart of the matter. Rasmus is branded a “fucking homo” by a bunch of the boys in his town, at which point his Mother attempts to reassure one of her friends that her son is not “what those boys were yelling.” The implication is obvious; Rasmus’ mother thinks being a “fucking homo” is a bad thing and doesn’t want anyone to think that of her son. It’s a surreptitious, almost unspoken form of homophobia that is still quite prevalent today. Similarly, when Benjamin’s Mother is watching a show on the television about HIV/AIDS she declares it “the end of days” and asks what the victims expect when they live in sin. This is a theme that runs through the episode; excuses are made for homophobia in the same manner that they are now. It’s a sin, it’s dangerous, it’s filthy; the excuses were as feeble then as they are now, yet still they’re called upon to justify bigotry. This, above all else, is what the drama captures so naturally.
For me the first episode of Don’t Ever Wipe Tears without Gloves was all but perfect. The director’s artistic temperament occasionally gets in the way and the imagery can be a tad heavy-handed but neither of these issues impede on the drama or the story. It is well-written, brilliantly-performed and beautifully-nuanced. It lays the foundations for the heartache that is to come with passion and believability. It’s another excellent notch on the post for Scandinavian drama and I can’t wait for the next episode, even though I just know it’ll make me weep like a baby…
Don’t Ever Wipe Tears without Gloves is available on BBC iPlayer. Episode two airs at 10pm on December 9th.