No one is well-behaved here – they cross-talk, cheat, gossip, fight – but they love each other in the way only a group of alcoholics who have bared their souls to each other can.
Love in Recovery, an award-nominated BBC radio comedy drama set in Alcoholics Anonymous, is now available in the U.S. via Audible.
The three-season (plus Christmas Special) series features actors John Hannah, Rebecca Front, Sue Johnston, Paul Kaye, Eddie Marsan, Julie Deakin, Johnny Vegas, and Samantha Bond. It was created and written by Pete Jackson, and is based on his life experiences, but, according to him, “in an abstract way.”
“None of the specific stories are taken from my life or anyone else’s. I certainly wouldn’t betray anyone else in recovery’s trust by drawing on any of their experiences. But what I did was take all of the facets of my own recovery — the shame and regret and hope and disappointment and confusion and so on, and invent stories to convey those things.”
His hope in writing the series was to “explore the complexities of alcoholism, and perhaps show those who don’t struggle with it that alcoholism is in no way as simple as they might expect. I’m ten years sober and I still can’t make total sense of why I so desperately sought out oblivion for so long.”
The cast is small, which allows a lot of character development and interaction, and most of the story takes place in their weekly AA meeting, allowing years to pass in only three seasons.
Many archetypes are represented. There is Andy, the self-appointed group leader, who cares more than anyone else. In a hilarious recurring bit that runs for the first two seasons, Andy is always first to the meeting to set up the chairs; he is literally the only character that does any service, and each time, he runs into the same cleaning woman who has no idea who he is. Is he here to teach dance, ceramics, have a party? She never recognizes him, and it frustrates him every time. Andy thinks nobody appreciates him or the time he puts in to making the meeting happen, and so it’s incredibly moving when they surprise him with a cake on his birthday. (This ain’t no L.A. sobriety – I mean actual day of birth.)
Then there is Julie, the older housewife whose husband left her due to her drinking. She has been sober several years now, “except for a few slips.” Julie’s unlikely friendship with Danno, a young gay man with a chest tattoo he is so terrified of revealing to his new boyfriend that the rest of the group thinks he’s talking about AIDS when he alludes to it, demonstrates another kind of love in recovery. As it says in the book, “we are people who would not normally meet.”
In the first episode, Fiona walks into her first AA meeting ever, not sure she is an alcoholic but sure something needs to change. Fiona, a high-powered banker sick of embarrassing herself at business functions and waking up in strange places, becomes a stellar AA after a lot of initial resistance, humbling herself by working as a receptionist. Fiona doesn’t relapse on booze during the series, but does (spoiler alert) cheat on her fiancé, Simon, right before their wedding with a man who treats her like garbage, a classic alcoholic move we can all relate to – self-sabotaging when life is going well in order to have control of the inevitable rug coming out from under us.
Simon is not an alcoholic, just a normal guy who was ordered to go to meetings for six weeks for drunk driving (though Brits call it drink driving, which, I promise, will inadvertently crack you up every time, and, if you’re like me, you’ll repeat it out loud and giggle more) and stays for the camaraderie and love. Simon shows us the difficulty that normal people have in understanding us alcoholic/addicts, and also teaches Fiona unconditional love. He gets frustrated with her extreme self-centeredness, but he believes in their love so deeply that they persevere.
Unlike people in the U.S., Brits are known for being quite reserved, something my ex-patriot friends living in London found hard to get used to. This reticence makes what happens in the rooms of AA even more of a departure from everyday life. As Jackson says, “I have been shocked, and thrilled, by how quick some Americans are to open up and get to the heart of things. That’s why AA is an extraordinary place (in the U.K.) sometimes. Once the doors are closed, people open up and talk about themselves and their experiences in a very un-English way. And perhaps because it’s been bottled up so long, it often comes flooding out in an extraordinary way.”
No one is well-behaved here — they cross-talk, cheat, gossip, fight — but they love each other in the way only a group of alcoholics who have bared their souls and hopes to each other can. We learn about their children, their extended families, their generational trauma and alcoholic mothers, their codependencies, and of course, the war stories. It’s impossible to listen to this and not fall in love.
While listening, I often wished it was a television show; I wanted so badly to see the characters’ faces and watch their interactions. Jackson chose radio because “The freedom you’re given on radio is extraordinary. The commissioners and execs don’t read scripts or give notes, so you can go away and do exactly what you want, which, for something as personal as this, was very important, I thought. Myself and producer Ben Worsfield (who’s a bit of a genius and without whom the show wouldn’t exist) would sit and talk about the things I wanted to explore, put together a bit of an outline and then I’d go away and write it. Then we’d get the cast together and record it. It was incredibly streamlined and free. Also, radio draws the listener in. It requires a little more concentration I think, so people are more involved, and feel almost part of the group.”
He isn’t wrong. Having to imagine the visuals requires a bit more work, but it did draw me in and I felt close to the characters. Having the audio alone was somehow more intimate than watching video; there was no digital screen separating me from everyone. I don’t know what this series would have been like on TV, but it doesn’t matter. It’s perfect the way it is. I fell in love with these characters, and I know you will too.