After their University of Edinburgh graduation ball, Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew end up in bed together. Ostensibly, they’re an unlikely couple: she’s a working-class girl from Leeds who has just achieved a double first in English and History. He’s a privileged, upper middle-class boy from Oxfordshire with a low 2:2 in Anthropology.
It’s the early hours of the morning of 15 July, 1988: St Swithin’s Day. Dexter and Emma don’t actually have sex but they hit it off, liking each other more than they’re prepared to admit. They decide to spend the day together; “the first day of our properly adult lives” as Emma puts it. Just as that day is ending and they might be about to tumble into bed again, Dexter’s parents turn up, putting an end to any further romance.
The pair part but resolve to stay in touch. Then we revisit them on the same date for the next two decades, following them through their highs and lows, watching as the passing years buffet their hopes and dreams but also smooth the edges of hurt and heartbreak.
That’s the premise of David Nicholls’s beloved 2009 novel One Day – translated into 40 languages with six million copies sold and counting. It is, essentially, a romcom and it’s a superb one, but it has serious, maybe profound, elements. This beautiful, note-perfect adaptation really does it justice.
Emma (Ambika Mod) is funny, sarcastic and occasionally scathing. Self-conscious and underconfident, she’s a realistic idealist. She recognises that she can’t change the entire world so she’d be quite happy changing just a little bit of it. Dexter (Leo Woodall) is a charming, good-looking, golden boy, effortlessly breezing through life. The height of his ambition is to be rich and famous and, in an ideal world, sleep with more than one woman at the same time.
Initially, Dexter’s life seems charmed. He can do no wrong. Coveted TV presenting gigs just fall into his lap. Meanwhile, Emma, an aspiring writer, struggles to get out of first gear, trapped in grinding dead-end jobs and relationships. We know that these star-crossed lovers should be together and we desperately want the stars to align for them. They almost do, several times, but if there’s one other thing we know about the course of true love, it’s that it never did run smooth.
Most of the 14 episodes are set on just a single 15 July and they average around 30 minutes long. Each leaves you wanting more. Well, except the excruciating episode in which Dexter meets the awful parents and siblings of a girlfriend much wealthier and posher than he is. You might find yourself watching that through your fingers.
This is not the first screen adaptation of One Day. A 2011 film divided critics, perhaps unfairly, between those who didn’t like it and those who loathed it. The casting of Hollywood star Anne Hathaway as Emma generated a great deal of comment. Whether Hathaway convinced as a chippy northern lass is questionable but Ambika Mod excels in the part.
This is the first lead role for Mod, so impressive as stressed junior doctor Shruti in BBC medical drama This is Going to Hurt. It confirms her as a star and a major talent. Watch her, to give just one example, in the scene when she spots Dexter on the other side of the church at a wedding. They haven’t been in touch for a long time after a big falling-out. In the space of an instant, several conflicting emotions flicker across Emma’s face: regret, longing, annoyance. It’s brilliantly done. It will be fascinating to see what Mod does next because this series is going to open up all manner of opportunities for her.
Woodall, who viewers might know from season two of The White Lotus, is also hugely impressive. He arguably has the trickier job as an actor because we’re rooting for Emma while Dexter can be – how to put this? – a monumental arse; self-centred, pretentious and shallow. But thanks to the script and Woodall’s nuanced performance, we also see his vulnerability and insecurities. He’s often reprehensible but never irredeemable and we’re prepared to put up with him because Emma’s prepared to put up with him.
Aside from the two leads, there are some fabulous performances from the supporting cast. Jonny Weldon, hitherto best-known for his funny social media videos about the life of an actor, is tremendous as needy stand-up comedian Ian who is besotted with Emma. Amber Grappy is hilarious as Emma’s sex-positive friend, Tilly. Essie Davis is utterly charming as Dexter’s mum. Tim McInnerny, Dexter’s buttoned-up father, should win a Bafta just for his look of panic when someone asks him a personal question.
The writers have really got inside the characters and there are some delightful details. Of course Emma would have tickets for gigs by Prefab Sprout and Scritti Politti and a flier for a Reclaim the Night march pinned to the noticeboard in her student bedroom. Of course she would take five books to the beach in Greece and of course they would include AS Byatt’s Possession and Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
The series also excels at capturing the special atmosphere of particular magical moments in time: a boozy graduation ball; a hazy summer evening spent drinking wine on London’s Primrose Hill; a midnight heart-to-heart in the middle of a lamplit maze. The atmospherics are enhanced by an evocative soundtrack that’s a music nerd’s dream: Lambchop, The Magnetic Fields, Massive Attack, Karen Dalton, Suede, Joan Armatrading, Jeff Buckley, Vanbur, The The, Belle and Sebastian, among others – give the music supervisor a raise.
And, like all the other great screen romances, from Brief Encounter to Titanic, from Portrait of a Lady on Fire to Normal People, it’s full of tantalising what-ifs. What if Emma hadn’t left her house five seconds before a distraught Dexter called her from a railway station? What if they had actually kissed that summer evening on Primrose Hill? What if, on that one day…
There has been some debate recently about whether the golden era of high-quality, prestige TV is ending. One Day is here to triumphantly tell you it’s definitely not over yet. It will make you laugh, a lot. It will definitely make you cry, a lot. Watch it.
One Day is released on Netflix on 8 February.
If you liked this story, sign up for The Essential List newsletter – a handpicked selection of features, videos and can’t-miss news delivered to your inbox every Friday.