The tourist authorities in Parma, north Italy, may have missed a trick. Music may be the food of love – Parma has Verdi and its famous ham and cheese – but mirror neurons, which are brain cells that foster empathy, were discovered by researchers at the city’s university more than 20 years ago.
Tourists jostle around Verona’s crummy, graffiti-surrounded balcony, linked to Romeo and Juliet, but the science of how we fall in love was first mapped out in Parma.
Sarah Woods’ likeable if fragmentary love story Watch Me is threaded through with a commentary by neuroscientist Christian Keysers, who worked on mirror neurons at Parma and now heads the Social Brain Lab at the Netherlands Institute for Neurosciences.
As feisty, career girl Anja (Sarah Smart) meets single dad Rhys (Alun Raglan), Keysers explains how they “connect intuitively” because the parts of the brain that register emotions are active when we see such responses in others.
However, this project falls down through a lack of nerve. There isn’t enough of the fascinating science, and Keysers is limited to providing a commentary in the style of the Big Brother house psychologist. “Watching strangers [interacting], we can predict what’s going to happen,” he says. I wish he had given us less of that and more of the brainy stuff.
But it stays with you, this Parma-originated science, a bit like the cheese. With Keysers’ voice echoing around my brain, I now hear Sense and Sensibility, Austen’s tale of sisters with very different approaches to love, in terms of mirror neurons. As Ben Lamb’s caddish Willoughby brushes off lovelorn Marianne (Olivia Hallinan), I can feel my insular cortex lighting up with disgust along with hers.
The concluding part becomes substantive after a slightly weak opening to the first episode. Even local aristocrat Lady Middleton (Rosina Carbone) and the Steele sisters (Victoria Brazier and Caitlin Thorburn) – loose cannons in the love stakes – cease the overt simpering, which semaphores a less than perfect mental acuity.
For BBC1 in 2008, Andrew Davies offered an adaptation that added seduction scenes and bolstered the charms of Edward Ferrars, the on-off suitor of one of the two Dashwood sisters, played by a pre-Downton Dan Stevens.
Here, Helen Edmundson dramatises the novel more faithfully, making cuts for expediency and clarity, and Henry Devas’ Edward is demoted to his original, non-pin-up status. Elinor is quickly established as the sibling with sound judgement. Played by Amanda Hale – sounding rather like Hattie Morahan, who took the role for TV – she exudes amusement and affection, even while chiding her younger sister Marianne, who can become quite peevish in her solipsism.
The mirror neurons are having a bad week in Nicholas McInerny’s ironically titled series How to Have a Perfect Marriage, drawn from his own experience, about a husband (Greg Wise) whose homosexual desires lead him to propose a “closed loop” marriage to his wife (Julia Ford), in which he is allowed a gay lover.
Although this suggestion raises long-term questions, the story is told from the woman’s point of view. The author’s ability to see life through her eyes is remarkable.
Frederic Raphael’s new play Jake Leibowitz – A Life in Film is disappointing, despite sterling performances by William Hope as the fractious, eponymous film director and Eleanor Bron as the redoubtable film critic interviewing him.
We are supposed to glimpse the fictional, Woody Allen-style auteur through acted-out scenes from his ‘films’, but these prove unengaging and tedious. What is mostly revealed is a profound dysfunction in Leibowitz’s relationships with women. A case of prickly neurons.
Watch Me, R4, Monday, August 12
Sense and Sensibility, R4, Sunday, August 11
How to Have a Perfect Marriage, R4, Monday, August 12
Jake Liebowitz – A Life in Film, R4, Saturday, August 10