Skillfully adapted by Simon Burke from the acclaimed novel by Zadie Smith White Teeth is a colourful, decades-spanning chunk of recent history filtered through the lives of a small group of individuals.
It begins with unhappy war veteran Archie Jones (Phil Davis, Bleak House, Sherlock) preparing to end his life in Willesden, London, 1974. A man whose most important decisions rest on the toss of a coin, Archie’s doleful fatalism illustrates both White Teeth’s rich seam of bleak humour and its reliance on fate and coincidence to propel the plot.
The black comedy carries into the dialogue and the performances, as well as moments of absurd slapstick – watch out for Archie’s description of his first marriage, made all the funnier by Davis’ hangdog, deadpan performance. This exchange takes place during the first episode, in which he reconnects with an old army friend, Samad Iqbal (Om Puri, East is East, Charlie Wilson’s War).
Samad, a blustering bon-vivant and pseudo intellectual, arrives in Willesden to fulfill an arranged marriage to a steely young bride (an eye-catching Archie Punjabi, East is East, The Good Wife). Samad finds England less welcoming than he’d hoped, as do Clara Bowden and her redoubtable mother.
Naomie Harris (Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, 28 Days Later) imbues Clara with a combination of innocence and easy, instinctive sensuality, as she begins to leave her mother’s inflexible world view behind. Clara’s self-discovery leads her to a brief affair and an encounter with a commune, featuring a relatively subdued, but perfectly cast Russell Brand.
In one of a number of leaps back and forth through time, the second episode opens in 1984, which finds Samad and Archie neighbours with young families. Snubbed by his resentful wife, Samad allows himself to be led astray by a personable, dippy teacher at his sons’ school. The affair, deliberately the stuff of midlife crisis cliché, allows director Julian Jarrold to convey Samad’s conflicted state of mind with an assured touch, through acidly surreal fantasy sequences and Samad’s frequent entreaties to God.
Clever dialogue allows Archie to inadvertently cut through Samad’s self-justifying rhetoric with lugubrious common sense, but he lacks the conviction to prevent Samad from dividing his family to cover his shame.
The latter episodes focus on the consequences of Samad’s actions on the next generation, and apparently minor characters from the opening episodes are brought to the fore, including a fresh-faced James McAvoy (Shameless, The Last King of Scotland, Becoming Jane), as Josh, the bright, hot-housed only child of academic parents who befriends Samad and Archie’s children. Geraldine James and Robert Bathurst stop just shy of overplaying, in a bitingly satirical portrayal of well-meaning, ineffectual middle class parents who neglect Josh in favour of a more exotic houseguest.
Other targets for mockery include all shades of fundamentalism, religious or otherwise, as in the final episode which includes a brilliant, cheeky sequence in which a sleek, serious outfit with a strange whiff of the Nation of Islam about it, almost miss a planned assasination, due to the vagaries of London public transport.
The broiling resentments created by the elder generation in the opening episodes lead to a riotous climax in which all loose ends are firmly knotted in fantastic, if implausible fashion. Despite this, White Teeth is entertaining and witty enough to make stretching credulity to near breaking point not only forgivable, but an essential part of the story.
The latter episodes also reinforce the mythical and fantastic elements of the plot with visual cues—like Samad’s adolescent twins, one wears black, the other white, for much of the final episodes.
First broadcast on Channel 4 in 2002, the DVD features on White Teeth are basic and sparse. The two disc set might have been improved by something from the production team on adapting such a popular, and densely plotted novel for television without resorting to a strictly linear timeline.
These minor gripes aside, White Teeth is still a timely piece, filled with committed and convincing turns from its cast. It neatly dissects the frictions of a multi-racial and multi-generational society, with a heartening lack of the present paranoia in TV drama, and maintains an affectionate, wonky sensibility.