When debating the merits of fictional driving instructors, it’s safe to say that David Tennant’s asthmatic, mild-mannered Chris in Learners wins out over Eddie Marsan’s abusive, combustible Scott in Happy-Go-Lucky. In this compact television film though, the face-off is between Chris and Ian (Shuan Dingwall), the testy layabout husband of Beverly (Jessica Hynes).

Beverly has the shameful distinction of failing her driving test eight times. She somehow manages to keep her permit but goes a bit batty whenever her hypercritical husband gives her a driving lesson. And while her life isn’t falling apart at the seams, it certainly feels that way to her. Ian invests their money in one shady scheme after another, the latest of which is a backyard owl breeding farm, and her daughter casually hopes to attend Oxbridge on her mother’s part-time cleaner’s salary.

Beverly finds her prospects looking brighter when she enrolls in driving lessons. It puts a strain on the family budget, enough for her to pilfer cash from her daughter’s savings tin, but Chris, her new teacher, gives her the attention and encouragement she needs to finally conquer the three point turn. That he is effortlessly patient and literally willing to go the extra mile makes her heartsick – both about her current partner and her lack of direction.

If you are more familiar with Hynes from her comedic work, notably as yappy airhead Siobhan Sharpe in Twenty Twelve, you might find yourself trying to read between the lines of Beverly’s sincerity. (Hynes is also the scriptwriter.) But she mostly plays it straight, though still in keeping with the overall wry tone of the piece. She shows herself to be a fit of a woman frustrated by her immobility, not just in terms of driving but also as a partially employed housewife who wants to but cannot find fulfillment as a wife or a mother.

Enter Fiona (Sarah Hadland) then, the wacky playhouse mirror reflection of Beverly. She owns the driving school and spends a lot of time convincing herself and others that she has a handle on it all, including her affair with a married police officer (Con O’Neill). Hadland does a similar turn in The Job Lot as a slightly neurotic, romantically challenged boss, but unlike that more buoyant character, Fiona tries her best to put off the awareness that she is a driving instructor who wants to go places but whose life is permanently stalled.

Hadland, along with Tennant, provide some of the funniest exchanges in the film. Both are immeasurably comfortable at inhibiting uncomfortable people. In one awkward situation, a study of perfect passive aggressiveness, Chris tepidly approaches his boss about a smoking coworker. He explains that not only does it aggravate his asthma but that it is illegal to smoke in the staff room. Fiona insists that her offending employee should not be made to feel a second class citizen, which allows Chris a pause to consider the issue from another point of view – and to take a big puff from his inhaler. Fiona replies, “Well I’m a Buddhist, and I try to see everything from everyone else’s perspective,” to which Chris responds without missing a beat, “That’s exhausting.”

Tennant’s lanky gawkiness is the perfect complement to Hynes and Hadland; he makes a pathetic but equally sympathetic Chris. A devout Christian with a corseted set of morals, he reacts like a shocked schoolboy when Beverly acts on her impulses and tries to kiss him. “I’m your instructor and a member of the DVLA!” he half shouts and pouts. With a guy so committed to doing his job, it’s no wonder everyone loves him.

Released: 2007
Prod: David Thompson
Dir: Francesca Joseph
Writer: Jessica Hynes
Cast: Jessica Hynes; Sarah Hadland; David Tennant; Shaun Dingwall; Con O’Neill; Richard Glover;
Time: 78 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Network: BBC One
Reviewed: 2014