'Love, Lies & Records' Review: The View From the Register Office

When a work is as involving as this scintillating mash of soap opera, sitcom hilarity, murder mystery and social commentary, you don’t stop to ask questions about the genre. “Love, Lies & Records,” about the lives of employees at the Register Office in Greater Leeds, England, begins noisily—it’s packed with characters and complicated relationships both at home and at work, none of which gets in the way of its instant hold on a viewer’s attention.

The most important employee in this saga by

Kay Mellor

(one of England’s most popular television writers) is its heroine,

Kate Dickenson

(a flawless

Ashley Jensen

), who has lived with Rob (

Adrian Bower

), a detective sergeant, her partner for 14 years, and assorted children. Theirs is a blended family, and it’s about to become more so. Kate is dauntless, devoted to the Register Office and all that it stands for

That office is where people register births and deaths, and where they marry. She comforts people suffering sadness and loss, as when they register the death of a parent or spouse, and she is in charge at the happiest of times for others—their wedding ceremonies. For all her bottomless sympathy Kate puts up with no nonsense about important matters. Infuriated, while conducting a wedding, she snaps at the bride who keeps looking at her watch.

Kate will have occasion for fury often when she comes under threat of blackmail at the hands of the hard-working and ambitious Judy (Rebecca Front), a fellow registrar jealous of Kate’s promotion to the top job of superintendent. The material for this blackmail—CCTV video of a graphically vivid escapade involving a drunken Kate and a male colleague after an office Christmas party—has fallen into Judy’s hands. It’s the source of wild comedy and terrifying suspense—an exemplar of all that’s best about the show’s script, not least its steady sitcom wit. In the department of best performances, count the impressively subtle one Ms. Front delivers. Even with her chilling, sublimely malignant smile as she lies and plots the worst against Kate, there’s a sense of a deeper dimension to Judy.

This is a series whose impulse to moral instruction is unconcealed—filled with social messaging on inclusiveness, the need to celebrate our differences, consider the plight of refugees, and more. By the time episode two ends we’ve witnessed one gay wedding—don’t worry, there are more to come—refugee women in mysterious trouble, and the beginning of a transgender journey involving James (

Mark Stanley

), a deputy registrar and gloriously handsome hunk about to introduce the realities of his new life to his colleagues. He’ll be coming to work in women’s clothes the next day, he warns. The announcement brings warm congratulations from everyone but Judy, the sinister plotter, to whom, perhaps not surprisingly, the script has also assigned the role of a religious bigot, one who refuses to celebrate gender transformation. Also gay marriages, which she assiduously avoids performing.

Kate’s attention isn’t limited to those who come to the Register Office in need—she’s prepared to take care of James, too, who now demands to be called Jamie, and who needs a place to live now that his wife doesn’t take well to her husband wearing dresses. He lands in Kate’s already crowded house, which leads to bitter comedy, in which Kate’s entire blended-with-a-vengeance family—her infuriated partner, Rob; the couple’s equally upset teenage daughter; Kate’s teenage son from a previous partner; and Rob’s son from a previous marriage—all stand in line outside the one bathroom, waiting to get in. Which they can’t do because Jamie is inside perfecting his makeup and female attire.

No early scene is more striking or indicative of the show’s quality, its sharply drawn characters and skillful performances than the one involving Simon (

James Burrows

), a young man who has come to register the birth of his son. His wife is absent, Kate notices. She’s in a hospice, dying of cancer, against which fate she might have had a chance, Simon explains, if she had accepted treatment and not chosen instead to have her baby. Discovering the couple are not in fact married, Kate asks if they’d like her to arrange a wedding now—the beginning of a memorable spectacle, thanks largely to Mr. Burrows’s wrenchingly wonderful performance and that of

Hannah Steele

as the new bride. It’s remarkable that a story line with so much potential for a deadly flow of treacle should emerge with such power.

By episode six, the series does seem to have run out of material in the outrage-and-messaging department—there’s a distinct sense of plot exhaustion in the theme combining gay marriage and refugees.

It’s a minor flaw, given all that has come before. And given this chapter’s bounty of non-stop suspense over Kate’s choice of the man in her life—a decision whose answer will have to come in season two.

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