Imagine four episodes of Grand Designs stepping through a false door in a Mid-Century Modern cupboard and coming out with unaccountable bloodstains on their Nicole Farhi trouser suits. That’s the general flavour of the BBC’s flagship drama of the week. Hard on the heels of the working-class thriller You Don’t Know Me, The Girl Before isn’t among the elites of Succession, but sits in the more awkward ground of the successful middle classes, in a London many will have seen in style supplements but not up close. This show may make you grateful for that.
We are drawn in with the high concept of an ultra-modern townhouse which Edward (David Oyelowo) is making available for that hardest-to-find renter: someone willing to let the creepy, concrete-clad monolith organise your life, in return for reduced rent. As he says, “it’s the price the tenant pays for living there: data, instead of market rent” (remind you of any tech companies?). We follow the intriguingly / confusingly similar-looking Emma (Jessica Plummer) and Jane (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) as they try their darndest to get through the selection process, increasingly beguiled as they appear to be by their dream house, and by Edward. Smart screens declaring “Maximum Occupancy Exceeded” when Emma and boyfriend Simon (Ben Hardy) rashly throw a party, might have been warning enough.
Anna van Praagh in the London Evening Standard found all this “luke-warm, unconvincing flannel… [which] takes an intriguing premise and squanders it”. For Lucy Mangan in the Guardian, “it’s the red flags that make it fun… Oh, and he doesn’t live there because his wife and baby were killed by a collapsing wall on a site visit during the build. Anyway, sign here.” The Independent’s Ed Cumming thinks this is a show “to get everyone in the festive mood” (a little modish Corona-irony there). “At points, it is admirably sinister… But while the dual narrative structure creates a sense of foreboding and of history repeating itself, it comes at the price of undermining some of the dramatic tension.”
Edward’s own view is this: “I don’t actually think of myself as a minimalist. When you relentlessly eradicate everything unnecessary or imperfect, it’s surprising how little is left.”
First shown December 2021.