Two very different dramas, a whole host of comedy from Channel 4 and the return of a show nobody thought would come back – are the highlights in this week’s instalment
As Downton Abbey becomes more successful in America, it seems as if the US channels are quick to produce a costume drama of their own. HBO have got in on the act by co-producing Parade’s End, an adaptation of a quarter of novels written by Ford Maddox Ford. This first episode is set in 1910 and introduces us to Christopher Tietjens, a statistician and the so-called ‘cleverest man in London’ who is about to be married to a woman who seemingly doesn’t love him. Instead philandering socialite Sylvia sees Christopher’s wealth and standing as a good enough reason to marry him and tells him that the child she is carrying is his. As Sylvia tries to make Christopher jealous, he is more interested in numbers so she eventually runs away with her lover Potty. After Sylvia’s departure, Christopher drops off his son with his sister and retires to his London apartment. Soon though, Christopher’s head is turned by pretty suffragette Valentine as he helps her and her friend escape from a golf course during a demonstration. Christopher and Valentine escape together down a misty path and get lost before almost sharing an illicit kiss. However, Sylvia’s return may spell the end of this brief relationship as Christopher’s wife is determined to win her man back.
Initially I found Parade’s End a little hard to warm too and I felt, as this was an HBO co-production, that it was all getting a bit tits and top hats. The plot also took a while to settle down and the opening ten minutes was full of flashbacks explaining the details of Christopher and Sylvia’s relationship. However, about half way into the drama I really started to enjoy it especially due to the amount of humour that was on display. This was best exemplified in a scene in which a number of the drama’s most colourful characters enjoy breakfast together which climaxes in a large diatribe from Rufus Sewell’s mad reverend. I found Cumberbatch’s performance to be spot on as he perfectly portrayed Christopher as a straight-laced chap who understood numbers far more than people. Fans of Sherlock may be taken aback by the fact that Cumberbatch plays it fairly detatched meaning it’s hard to feel anything for Tietjens until his wife leaves him. Parade’s End also has a fantastic supporting cast from Miranda Richardson to Rupert Everett to Roger Allam all of these actors are utterly fantastic and add something very special to the piece. For me though the tour de force performance comes from hall as a woman who wants more from her life than being a wife and mother and is constantly bored by her surroundings whether it be at home with her husband or on the run with her lover. Sylvia isn’t a likeable character, even her family find it hard to deal with her at times, but Hall is able to make you relate to this woman who hasn’t really found a man she can settle down with despite being married.As you can imagine with an American co-production it seems a lot of money has been spent on the costumes and sets to give Parade’s End as much period detail as humanly possible. Every scene looks so well-crafted at times I feel that more work has gone into that than the script however with Tom Stoppard adapting the books the screenplay isn’t really an issue here. Overall, while it took me a while to warm to it, I really enjoyed Parade’s End and found it to be an intelligent and well-acted period drama. As one who isn’t a massive fan of the genre, I feel that this period drama may surprise a lot of people as it relies on character development, rather than oodles of glamour, to tell its story.
For our second piece of drama we switch over to ITV1 for psychological thriller The Last Weekend. Shaun Evans stars as Ian a disillusioned primary school teacher who is struggling to cope with the fact he and wife Em can’t have kids while at the same time beating up some of the children in the playground. Ian and Em are about to journey to the countryside to stay with his old uni buddies Ollie and Daisy played by Rupert Penry-Jones and Episodes’ Genevieve O’Reilly respectively in a secluded cottage. The USP of The Last Weekend is that the majority of the piece is narrated by Ian who addresses us first-hand as we get the idea that he and Em’s weekend away didn’t go that well especially as there’s the hint that one of the quartet won’t finish the weekend alive. There’s also a bit of a love triangle situation going as Ian and Daisy briefly dated at uni before Ollie supposedly stole her away from his mate and through his narration we see that he’s never really got over this. As you would expect from a psychological drama such as this one there’s plenty of revelations such as the fact that Ollie has a brain tumour though the seriousness of it is questionable he mentions that he could kill somebody and get away with it. Finally we learn that the boys also have a competitive spirit engaging in a three-day triathlon for money that Ian doesn’t seem to have but needs as he may well lose his job after the incident in the playground. There was enough to enjoy in the first episode of The Last Weekend with Evan’s narration and Penry-Jones’ performance being top of the list while the ‘who doesn’t make it?’ story is enough to keep the intrigue levels up. On the other side of the coin the dramatic music is too loud and is over-used while I feel that I will struggle to connect with these characters in the two upcoming episodes. Though I find it’s best to go with new dramas and see where they lead but this one definitely has enough gloomy style going for it to be a minor hit.
Staying on ITV1, we have a programme that many thought wouldn’t return for a second series that being the Simon Cowell produced game show Red or Black? The format was plagued with problems last year while the first winner of the million pounds turned out to be a former convict. This year the game is slightly different, the prize money has been halved while the number of contestants has been reduced to just eight. The programme employed a points system where all the contestants had to pick one colour in a series of challenges and the two with the biggest amount of points would progress in the contest. The Saturday night entertainment really was turned up a notch with a round in which Carol Vordeman and Jonathan Ross attempted to spell words. In the end, it was travel agent Sophie who won the game and got to play for the prize money with the all new final game. Yes the roulette wheel is gone and in its place is The Vortex, where the contestant must drop a ball into a hole and hope that the illuminated board was flashing red when the ball finally dropped. Thankfully the start of Red or Black was happy one as Sophie won the money and was surrounded by a jubilant family who were obviously already thinking about what they could get her to buy them now she had all this money. I have to say that there have been some vast improvements made to Red or Black with this new format feeling a lot tighter and more like an old school Saturday night entertainment show. Whenever Ant and Dec are on screen you know you’re in safe hands while the excitable crowd made this programme seem like a big deal. At the same time Red or Black still feels over long and I didn’t really get to know all of the contestants in the way I would’ve liked. Ultimately, while the programme has improved, I don’t think its a show that will last but at least the format has redeemed itself slightly especially after last year’s fiasco.
Finally Channel 4 are celebrating their 30th birthday by doing plenty of nostalgia-based shows however in addition plenty of new comedy offerings some acting as one-off specials while others may be pilots to brand new commissions we’ll just have to see. Something that was just a stand-alone episode, and a nostalgia treat certainly for yours truly, was Whatever Happened to Harry Hill. Before Hill became a household name with his TV Burp show he was best known for his sketch show that started in 1996 and introduced the world to another now recognisable name in Al Murray who in The Harry Hill Show played his big brother Alan. This new(ish) programme was a faux reunion show in the style of those that Justin Lee Collins used to preside over during the days when he was still relevant. The premise was that Hill had gone mad during the show’s three series and had become addicted to silt, a salty tinned fish, reacting violently to those around him and changing the popular badger parade sequence to a Badgers in Space sci-fi parody. Generally Whatever Happened to Harry Hill was the central cast looking back at the show as if they were their characters this included Hill, Murray and Burt Kwouk who used to have a segment every week where he’d sing ‘Hey Little Hen’ for no apparent reason. Murray’s Alan now runs a key shop, of course called Alan’s Keys, while Burt would happily not see any of them again but Harry wants to reunite with the gang one last time so I wonder if he’ll pull it off? To be honest I really wasn’t bothered about this plot and was happy instead just to wallow in a pool of memories while remembering gags I first heard when I was 12 or 13 and my parents used to let me stay up late to watch this nonsense – explains a lot really! This was absurdist stuff of the highest order with Harry’s wife who always was after his Abbey National book, random celebrity guests including Mystic Meg and Rustie Lee and the man from the Joy of Sex books who apparently killed himself on air. I just loved watching all of this and while they should never bring this show back again it was lovely to see all involved getting into the spirit of things the only thing I would say is I could’ve done without Harry dressing up as Jessie J but even that was slightly hilarious.
Another couple of comics who made their name on Channel 4 are Reeves and Mortimer who returned with a new surreal quiz show which bared a striking resemblance to something similar that was recently cancelled by the BBC. Their three guests were Eddie Izzard who was able to banter with the lads quite successfully, for example when asked what his occupation was he answered spinster, while for the most part Waterloo Road’s Chelsee Healey had very little idea what was going on while Thomas Turgoose from the This is England franchise tried to play along as much as he could though I wasn’t completely convinced. Dan Skinner, best known as Angelos Epithimou, also came along to play this time dressing up as John Meringue a gentleman Viking who once again was keeping the scores. The whole thing was a chance for Reeves and Mortimer do to a load of celebrity impressions including Vic doing a very convincing Miranda Hart while Bob tried his best as Dr Christian Jessen as they quizzed their famous guests. Crude drawings of JLS, a revelation about where Anthony Worral-Thompson is housed when he’s not on TV and Dan Skinner playing yet another broad comic character raised mild titters but unfortunately Lucky, Sexy Winners did nothing in the way of making me chortle. This is a shame as usually I find Vic and Bob fairly amusing and I was one of the ones that was annoyed when they cancelled Shooting Stars as I think it had the right mix of anarchic humour and character comedy thanks to Skinner’s Angelos while here John Meringue didn’t really do anything for me. It’s a shame as well that this is celebrating Reeves and Mortimer’s legacy on Channel 4 as they obviously gained fame first on the channel before heading over to the BBC but if this was a pilot for a new show I think it’s not good enough to go any further. I’d like to see Vic and Bob do something new on the TV together but for me any other quiz show is just going to be too close to Shooting Stars and there’s just no comparing any programme to the genius of that show.
Some new comedies that were definitely seeking full series included Toast of London which starred Matt Berry as legendary actor Steven Toast essentially doing that powerful theatrical voice he perfected in The IT Crowd. The plot of this alleged pilot sees Toast meet with his agent, stay with Robert Bathurst’s actor and his agoraphobic elderly mistress Gatehouse, star in an extremely controversial play and do a voice-over for an advert that just doesn’t seem to work out. Toast of London is co-written by Berry alongside Father Ted writer Arthur Matthews, who has been a lot less busy than former righting companion Graham Lineham, who together seem to have come up with a lot of funny names but not a lot else. For example there was Steven’s nemesis Ray Purchase who was able to draw convincing caricatures of him framing him as a peeping Tom as well as young, trendy ad exec Clem Fandago. My problem with Toast of London was that it didn’t seem to have a structure and seemed to be a collection of sketches rather than a proper sitcom with stories that could run and run. Thankfully Matt Berry is someone who can make me laugh just by the sound of his voice and his general outbursts here are on the whole hilarious even if at times there crude for the sake of being crude. I also loved Robert Bathurst’s Ed and his relationship with the nervy geriatric Gatehouse something that would be worth exploring if this ever did get a series however I do remain doubtful. It’s a shame as the talented Berry does need something to do and character comedy does suit him immensely though Toast of London does have a lot of rough edges to iron out if it did indeed return.
Though Toast of London was a masterpiece when compared to Just Around the Corner which did seem to have all the hallmarks of a great comedy show as it was from Outnumbered and Drop the Donkey Writers Guy Jenkin and Andy Hamilton plus it starred sitcom legends James Bolam and James Fleet. The concept for Just Around the Corner is at least an interesting one as a post-apocalyptic sitcom is something that has rarely been tried and in this programme the central story sees the majority of the UK flooded with most of the coastline gone so those left have to survive in this new world. Bolam and Fleet play father and son Mick and Edward while Jennie Jacques stars as Edward’s daughter Kia with the trio navigating their way through this new world with the teenage girl unable to remember at time when her father did have to perform dental work on her granddad or when corpses would randomly appear in the back garden. In possibly the funniest exchange, and to be fair there wasn’t much competition, Mick and Edward got into a feud with their next door neighbour Marvin played by Sanjeev Bhaskar as they constantly threw this unwanted corpse over their garden fence. There is also intolerance towards the Dutch, who have turned up in the UK after Holland completely sunk, and now are racially abused by the English who refer to them as Tulip-munchers so Edward is shocked discover that Kia is dating a Dutchman. There are more problems for the family when neighbourhood leader Big Delia invites Edward to her party and he doesn’t attend meaning that they’re at danger luckily the two strike up an agreement which I’m assuming will provide much of the humour if this does indeed get a full series. Though I don’t see a full series in Just Around the Corner’s future as I barely raised a smile during the 30 minutes it was on air as it was a clever concept that was poorly executed. Bolam and Fleet tried their best with the material but there weren’t really enough jokes to justify this returning and overall I would say this was a rare misfire for the otherwise reliable Jenkin and Hamilton.
But then again who wants to watch new comedy when Channel 4 have created so many memorable sitcoms which they looked back on in Channel 4′s 30 Greatest Comedies. Obviously with a list show they’ll be people who comment that certain shows should’ve been higher than others and unfortunately I’m one of those people so if you don’t want to hear about my problems with the list skip onto the next paragraph and I’ll join at the Waterloo Road review. OK so first off one of the more off-beat comedies that the channel has ever produced was Paul Merton’s short-lived series which only made the list at number 30 in a combination with Jack Dee and Lee Evans’ TV programmes in a sort of ‘look at the famous comedians who started on our channel’ compilation. Next the brilliant and ground-breaking Desmond’s is languishing at number 25 two spaces below the woeful Phone Shop. While I’m aware that The Inbetweeners is incredibly popular I struggle to believe that it’s the 5th best comedy that the channel has produced garnering a higher place than Phoenix Nights, Green Wing, The Comic Strip and Spaced. There wasn’t any room for either 8 out of 10 Cats or Whose Line is it Anyway programmes that could technically count as quizzes but are mainly regarded as comedies and I feel both should’ve made the list. For me though the biggest travesty is that Drop the Dead Donkey only came in at number 16 a programme that was ahead of its time and was Channel 4′s longest-running homegrown sitcom until Peep Show came along. In better news the Top 4 made sense: Black Books, The IT Crowd, Peep Show and at number one Father Ted so at least Graham Linehan had a good night even if I had many complaints about this laughable for the wrong reasons countdown.