Truly there are such things as Christmas miracles. First the vaccine (and the second dose being given to a William Shakespeare and prompting the image of Americans across their nation punching the air and crying: “We knew it! England is Four Weddings and a Downton Abbey full of bards!”). And now The Year That Changed Love (Channel 4) – a programme following the impact of the global pandemic and countrywide lockdown on a group of people and their relationships – somehow ending up as one of the warmest, most uplifting hours of television we have had this year. There should almost have been a warning at the beginning, so we could have braced ourselves. Warning: may cause overload in underused synapses in the pleasure centres of your brain. Please do not panic. What you are feeling is “happiness” and it is safe to enjoy. It will pass soon enough.
So then to our subjects, whom we find in varying stages of love, coupledom, singledom and searching in the early March of 2020. The first two are Jade and Claire, in Edinburgh, who have had one date (and a boob pic) a week before lockdown and decide to isolate together in Jade’s flat. Early footage from Claire’s phone shows them in face masks, petting the dog, watching Aladdin and eating steak, and always laughing. I love them. They have an understanding that if they have a big falling out, Jade will just take Claire home, whatever the lockdown rules say, and for this I love them even more.
In London, 23-year-old Bradley is single, locked down with his mum, stepdad, three siblings and two dogs, and hating every minute of it. “The thing I’ve learned about myself in lockdown? My need. For dick. Is HIGH.” I love him. As soon as London’s rules relax, Bradley is straight out to the park and a date with Tom. Social distancing is not observed. I love them both.
Ffion, in Llanelli, Wales, and her boyfriend, Ben, both have Down’s syndrome and are strictly observing all lockdown rules. They speak and text every day and Ffion posts videos about the latest guideline updates to her followers on social media. When they can finally meet in a park, Ben gives her a present instead of a hug, because that is still not allowed. I love them both, too, and wish to introduce them to Bradley and Tom though fear it may be too late.
Emma and Dean, who separated a year ago after six years of marriage, decide to lock down together so they can better look after their five-year-old son, Cole. Early footage shows them bickering and Emma eye-rolling at the camera as she bites her tongue. Anyone not in the white hot heat of early lust and adoration will surely empathise and root for them both.
Last, but most definitely not least, is lovely Louise in Wiltshire, who is as warm and beautiful as the sun. She is shielding as she recovers from both a brain tumour and from being left by her husband during her convalescence. Despite that, she has braved the world of online dating and, when the rules relax, starts preparing for a date with Rob. It goes well but, she says thoughtfully: “I think it was mostly being in a nice pub.” I love her the most.
The rest of what follows is so unexpected and charming that I found myself tilting my head this way and that as I tried to adapt to the fact that a rather sweet and moving meditation on the changes wrought by enforced stillness was unfolding before me.
Jade and Claire thrive and it becomes clear that Claire especially has found a kind of peace that has hitherto eluded her in life. Ffion and Ben meet properly once more, unscathed by separation. Things don’t work out with Tom, but Bradley comes to realise that rushing blindly towards everything might not be the only way to do it – that patience might sometimes bring rewards too. He even adjusts his life plan. Marriage, he thinks, can now wait until 30 instead of 25. And, God bless, Louise goes on more dates, but, in between, learns how to be alone and happy with herself. And Emma and Dean finally confront the terrible loss that sat between them and kept them apart until lockdown left them nothing else to do but face it and start to dismantle it, quietly painful conversation by conversation. In the process they find each other again.
Pandemics come and, God and modern medicine willing, pandemics go. What remains is love.