The title of this episode – Surprise! – is a bit of an understatement. It’s more akin to a bomb exploding just when you think the war is over, and there are long years of peace to look forward to. It begins well. You can tell by the cheerful, fizzy intro music that Roger (Alfred Molina) has won his job back at the Winter Gardens. Quite how, we don’t know, and I would love to have been a fly on the wall at the tribunal. But you can tell by the spring in his step as he comes in the door, and expectation of a surprise party lurking in the dining room, that all is well.
Roger’s disappointment when he discovers there’s no party is so manifest that Val’s (Dawn French) surprise is put in the shade. It takes a while for her pint of cask ale from the pub with a “Roger Stevenson Was Unfairly Dismissed” sticker on it to regain the higher celebratory ground.
But there’s a still a woman in the attic, and you begin to wonder when she’ll bang on the the ceiling with her stick. Val cooks a spaghetti meal with pans that were new when her son died 19 years before – they were still in their original cardboard labels. “I thought if we used them tonight, he could be part of it. You know, join in.” Roger agrees. “It’s a family occasion. It includes him.”
Roger chunters on about inviting the tribunal panel to the party, if there had been one, while Val wonders if she would invite the Head of her school. It’s a time for bonding, with that sense you get in all their conversations that the ground is about to fall away beneath their feet.
The first signs of a tremor come when Val says she didn’t ring the door bell earlier, when Roger didn’t answer it so as not to spoil his surprise. Who could it have been? Then the mortgage rears its ugly head, and Roger goes off to the computer to look at when the direct debit kicks in. He discovers they’re almost £5,000 in debt. That’s bad enough, without the email from Jean Duggan to say she called but no-one was in, and would call again tomorrow. A resounding thump on the ceiling from the attic room.
In the meantime, Val is dishing up the meal. A “V” in sauce on their plates “for victory,” though Roger wants “V” on hers and “R” on his for their names. And a sauce heart in the pan because “it honours him.” Lovely stuff. But a strange formality envelops the meal in the dining room, which they both make light of but can’t really shake off. So Roger decides to make his announcement. “I haven’t been entirely truthful with you about Jean Duggan.” She is not a stalker and Val is not surprised.
Then the spaghetti boils over, much as Val’s feelings must be, and she burns her hand on “these awful pans” that are so associated with the pain of losing her son. Jean Duggan, it turns out, has been to the house twice. Once, when she rang the bell at the start of this episode, and also in last week’s episode when she talked to Roger outside.
Finally, Roger tells the complete truth. “I have a 31 year old son, called Liam, who’s alive.”
Devastating for Roger and Val, who live for each other. They are united by a dead son, kept alive in her heart by Val, and suppressed in Roger’s mind. Being both a good son and a father is fundamentally important to Roger. That’s why the pain of losing his son made him repress the memories. Now he has a live son, nothing to do with Val, who will be very important to him. And Val is bound to feel devalued and marginalized. This could blow their marriage to pieces.