The scenes on the cemetery bench where Ricky Gervais’ After Life character speaks with another widow will live on long after the TV series ends, Angela Mollard writes.
Oh how I love Ricky Gervais but, my goodness, in the new season of After Life he’s a miserable sod.
For six emotionally wrought episodes about a man (not) coping after the death of his wife, I wanted to alternately shake him by the collar of his soulless brown jacket and pull him into my arms.
His grief is so visceral it’s wrenching.
But through all the comedy — it is Gervais, after all — and the tears and the inclusion of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now in a scene even more heartbreaking than Emma Thompson’s in Love Actually, there is hope. And like so often in both life and art, it’s delivered on a park bench.
It’s the scenes on the cemetery bench between Gervais’s character Tony and Anne, a fellow widow, which stay with you long after this final season closes.
Indeed, days after the heart mauling of After Life I’m still wondering if there’s any prop in our lives so prosaic yet so full of potential for grace and healing?
At once a mundane piece of municipal furniture, it’s the ordinariness of a park bench which makes it such a powerful emblem of humanity. Woven like tacking stitch around the edges of our parks, positioned in front of ocean views and lugged to the top of lookouts, these benches are less a backdrop to our lives than the centrepiece to so much of our storytelling.
Imagine the tales they could tell. The secrets, the tears, the confessions, the proposals. They are free therapy on legs, meditation without an app and a resting place for all, whether heartbroken or homeless.
How have we overlooked them for so long when they should be up there with museums and galleries and sculpture as an architectural triumph of civilisation?
Everyone has a park bench story because they offer communion either with ourselves, others or nature. Perfectly sized for one or two, they gift proximity — but not too much — and they’re elegantly designed to minimise confrontation.
Outward-looking and so often anchored in vistas that remind us of our insignificance, they invite reflection as much as conversation. They’re a pause rendered in wood. An anchor for the body and a sail for the imagination.
My grandmother loved them. Deaf from a young age, they allowed her to be in the world but not converse with it. Tired from lip-reading and the ongoing irritations of her hearing aid, she would tell me how much she loved just watching life, not participating in it. Park benches were her happy place.
Indeed, last Saturday after I finished with After Life I went on a long walk alone in the Yuragir National Park on the NSW north coast.
Rounding a corner thick with pandanus trees, I came out onto an open headland where a park bench overlooks the ocean.
Years ago, still bruised by marital breakdown I’d agreed to go on a date and my companion suggested we do the walk.
Sitting on that exact bench as whales breached in front of us, he revealed that his winning physical characteristic was “opposable thumbs”.
I laughed from a place of happiness I hadn’t accessed for a long time. When a group of fighter jets roared down the coast at that exact moment, he insisted he’d dialled them up for my delight.
Devised during Roman times when chairs were reserved for the elite — hence “chairman” — park benches were initially narrow in design so nobody could sleep on them.
In the 19th century they became mainstream but with iron handles and wooden slats they were designed, according to one urban architect, “to be just under relaxing”. Now ergonomic specialists in Italy have designed a version which cradles you in yoga-inspired exercises and “nourishes your para-sympathetic system”.
It’s the universality of park benches I love. The meeting place of spies, a sanctuary for breastfeeding mums, and a place in rest homes where the aged and ailing can spend their twilight years surrounded by loved ones.
Our cinema history would be bereft without them. Whether it’s Forrest Gump telling his life story to fellow bench dwellers or young Sam in Love Actually confessing to his dad that he is suffering from the “total agony” of being in love or Julia Roberts reclining in Hugh Grant’s lap in Notting Hill, the humble bench deserves annotation in the credits.
At least the bench which features in Good Will Hunting has become a shrine to the late Robin Williams.
The setting for Williams’s inspirational speech to Matt Damon’s Will — “you’re just a kid … you can’t tell me what it feels like to wake up next to a woman and be truly happy” — the bench in Boston Public Gardens became a memorial where fans chalked lines from his movies on the surrounding path.
While After Life has reached its final season it will endure as more than just a funny and poignant illustration of grief.
In recognition of the part played by the park bench, Netflix has paired with CALM, a charity that ‘Campaigns Against Living Miserably’ and donated dozens of benches engraved with three words: “Hope is Everything.”
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