What a prolific January for Maxine Peake. The actor started 2022 with an intense and sympathetic leading role in Anne – Kevin Sampson’s ITV drama about the Hillsborough disaster – before shifting to BBC One a week later as a deplorable protagonist in Ruth Fowler’s post-#MeToo drama Rules of the Game.
And yet, despite the differences in the series' tones and the moralities of their characters, Peake is perfectly cast in both cases. In the latter, she plays the sweary and straight-talking Sam Thompson, COO of the UK sportswear brand Fly Dynamic. She's worked hard for that position and considers herself equal to CEO Owen Jenkins (Ben Batt) and his CFO brother Gareth (Kieran Bew).
The company goes back decades, previously operating as a private firm. They’re now in the process of going public, which means their sleazy, dubious past – involving issues with consent, sexism, and even sexual assault – must be swept under the carpet and sealed there.
Rakhee Thakrar as Fly Dynamic's new HR director Maya. Photo: BBC
Rules of the Game opens as Sam enters the reception area, seeing puddles of blood on the floor and dripping down the wall. The identity of the dead body is kept away from the camera, leaving you to guess across the series about who the victim is. Fly comes under fire and Sam cooperates with the investigating officer (Susan Wokoma), unpacking the events leading to the death while keeping some secrets and biases of her own.
The drama whisks back to the state of the company before the blood. Fly are forced to employ a new HR director, the loveably awkward Maya (rising Sex Education actor Rakhee Thakrar) who possesses a stern sense of right and wrong that cuts through her personal anxieties.
Maya’s both perfect and detrimental, mainly helping the alcoholic and traumatised Tess (Callie Cooke). But the company heads don't realise how moral and fastidious she is, uncovering Fly’s buried and toxic history that includes the death of a 16-year-old assistant from 10 years earlier.
Katherine Tappe, Zoë Tapper and Kate Lamb as Carys, Vanessa and Liz. Photo: BBC
Somewhat bizarrely, the series' severity and time-hopping messiness unfold alongside quaintly middle-class lives at home. Fly is based in a small town with white wine, lavish homes and cheese clubs. It's the kind of affluent community that trashy television adores, occasionally resembling a cheaper Big Little Lies.
These trashier elements can cross into the ridiculous, especially when a certain ugly cat called Audrey is involved. But the setting offers some relief from the heavy load of the main plot, turning the series into a more entertaining affair than the premise suggests. While providing a few doses of humour, it also shows the temptation to ignore the immorality and enjoy the breadwinners' bounty.
Fowler fleshes out the women connected to Fly. They're working there, they know people who do, or they stay at home as old-fashioned housewives like Owen’s arrogant and glamorous wife Vanessa (Zoë Tapper). Although the number of well-drawn characters suggests Fowler initially pitched a longer series, her efforts pump a certain warmth into the dangerously relaxed community around Sam and Maya.
As the looser elements begin to tie together, Rules of the Game becomes a thrilling, enduring, and thought-provoking series that challenges the unchallenged behaviour permitted in workplaces for so long. Fowler doesn't write everything in black-and-white either: the moral ambiguity of Sam, a patriarchal female product of the former culture, represents that tricky transition to a new world. She’s far from blameless, but she’s hardly alone.
Rules of the Game airs on Tuesday 11 January and Wednesday 12 January at 9pm on BBC One.
|What||Rules of the Game, BBC One review|
11 Jan 22 – 11 Jan 23, ON BBC ONE
12 Jan 22 – 12 Jan 23, ON BBC ONE
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