Welcome back for a look at the week’s big shows featuring three new dramas and two returning comedies.
We kick off with a dramatic behemoth which has been one of Britain’s most popular exports over the past few years. Like it or loathe it, Downton Abbey is a big ratings winner for ITV and will seemingly continue until Julian Fellowes decides he doesn’t want to write it any more. Although I’ve never been a massive Downton fan I’ve kept with it on a sporadic basis just in case I need to review an episode. As a sort of outsider I’ve never really understood the mass appeal of the programme as I believe it’s quite dull a fact backed up by the evidence in the first episode of series five. Set in 1924, series five saw such exciting storylines as footman Molsely (Kevin Doyle) dying his hair and Daisy the maid (Sophie McShera) deciding she wanted to learn maths. Due to the fact that a Labour government had been voted in Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and the rest of his family are worried that things are changing in the country. Change was indeed the theme of the episode with at least one character uttering the word every two seconds. It was represented throughout the instalment via the story involving butler Carson (Jim Carter) being chosen to sit on a committee over Lord Grantham. This opening episode itself was ninety minutes long and the tedium was only broken for me with the story involving the secret of lady’s maid Baxter (Raquel Cassidy). The revelation that Baxter had been in jail was an unexpected one and was well-acted by the fantastic Cassidy. If I did continue to watch the series, and I’m in two minds about it, then this would be the only reason for doing so.
I do feel as if Fellowes and company realised that this first episode was indeed quite dull so decided to insert an exciting incident into its dying moments. That incident was a fire that started in Lady Edith’s room and swept through the house; exposing the fact that one of the footmen was having an illicit liaison with a rather randy female guest. Apart from this revelation very little happened after the fire and everybody got out of the building unscathed. I think that Fellowes could have used the fire to shake things up a little more and could have maybe killed of at least one character to get this series started with a bang. As it was the fire caused nothing more than a minor commotion and so it appeared to me as if this set-piece occurred for no particular reason. What I enjoyed much more was the sniping between Dame Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton whose small scenes together are some of Dowton’s most enjoyable moments. Although neither of their character matter in the grand scheme of the show; these two national treasures add some much needed light to a drama that takes itself all too seriously. In fact, generally I can’t fault many of the performers with the aforementioned Raquel Cassidy, Kevin Doyle and Laura Carmichael all impressing in this first episode. There’s no denying that Downton also looks fantastic thanks in part to some stunning cinematography and exquisite shooting locations. Whilst I never found Downton Abbey to be an excruciating watch, the majority of it simply flowed over me and I don’t think I was ever truly invested in the characters. I believe that the majority of people who tune in to watch Downton Abbey are doing it out of habit rather than genuinely being interested in what happens next for the characters. Maybe I’m wrong but Downton Abbey ultimately feels like the sort of programme that you feel you should watch instead of being a drama that you think you can’t afford to miss.
If you wanted something different from your Sunday night drama then you probably couldn’t have done much better than Our Girl; which has been handed a full series following a successful pilot last year. After having spent the last six months training as an army medic, Lacey Turner’s Molly Dawes is deployed to Afghanistan with an all-male platoon. One of the main problems that Molly faces is the fact that a former one-night stand, in the form of Iwan Rheon’s Smurf, is part of said platoon and delights in teasing her with memories of their time together. Molly also initially struggles to adapt to life in Afghanistan and appears to be distressed when she first encounters injured soldiers on her first night at Camp Bastion. She additionally struggles to impress her Captain, who views her as inexperienced and a little too eager to speak her mind. But, when Smurf is injured on patrol, Molly comes into her own as she makes her way through a minefield to tend to her injured colleague. It was in these last fifteen minutes that Our Girl really gripped me as, before that, I was genuinely disappointed by Tony Grounds’ drama especially seeing as I enjoyed the pilot so much. The majority of this first episode was packed full of expositional dialogue and featured the usually strong-willed Molly struggling to cope in her new environment. I’m also not much of a fan of the love triangle that Grounds is trying to establish where both Smurf and James have designs on their new medic. What I did like was the action scenes and the fact that a drama like Our Girl is completely different to what BBC One usually air on a Sunday night. Furthermore Lacey Turner puts in a fine turn as the forthright Molly as she convinces in the latter scenes and really makes the audience root for her in the tense minefield segment. Going forward, I’m hoping that Our Girl’s primary focus will be on Molly’s adjustment to life in Afghanistan with the love triangle only popping up as a secondary plot. I’m hoping this is the case as Our Girl is well on its way to being one of the BBC’s freshest dramas of the year and it’s a pleasant change to have a contemporary offering like this on a Sunday night rather than yet another period drama.
BBC One kept pumping out the new dramas this week with Danny Brocklehurst’s thriller The Driver debuting on Tuesday night. The Driver starred David Morrissey as humdrum cabbie Vince whose life has a reached a crossroads with his wife and daughter no longer showing him the love they once did. Whilst his teenage daughter Katie is constantly berating him, his wife Ros rarely gives him the time of day as she seems preoccupied by training for marathons and her job in product development. Vince’s life changes with the release from prison of his friend Col who in turn introduces him to crimelord ‘The Horse’ who offers him the chance to do some driving jobs. Initially refusing the proposition, Vince’s mind is changed during an incident in which he’s robbed by two young girls. However, Vince soon discovers that the job overtakes his life as he’s forced to answer the phone to ‘The Horse’ no matter what he’s doing at the time. The Driver’s opening scene, set after the majority of the episode’s action, was certainly adrenaline-fuelled and got me involved in the action from the beginning. The problem with starting the episode with this scene was the fact that the instalment finished with quite an anticlimactic moment which I felt spoilt the overall narrative. That being said The Driver had a lot going for it not least Morrissey’s central turn as a normal man forced into an extraordinary situation. I found the scenes in which Vince drove his cab around night-time Manchester to be particularly atmospheric as they added an extra element to the character. Although the story dipped in places, there was enough intrigue to keep me coming back for seconds especially in the subplot involving the disappearance of Vince’s son. However I do hope that the quality of The Driver improves as, considering who was involved, I thought that the drama would be a lot more accomplished than it turned out to be.
Better drama was provided courtesy of Marvellous; a one-off film from Peter Bowker who most recently gave us From There to Here. More importantly Bowker also penned the Morecambe and Wise biopic Eric and Ernie which shares many similar features with Marvellous. The drama is based on the life of Neil Baldwin (Toby Jones), a man who lived a fantastic life despite the fact he evidently had learning difficulties. From his time working with a circus as Nello the Clown to his job at Keele University advising students; Marvellous breezes through a lot of Neil’s accomplishments. But it’s his time as a kit boy at Stoke City that Marvellous focuses on prominently and in particular Neil’s relationship with the club’s then manager Lou Macari (Tony Curran). Additionally, Marvellous is a story about Neil’s close bond with his mother (Gemma Jones), who constantly worried about how her son would cope when she wasn’t around. What I liked about Marvellous was the way in which Bowker played with the narrative conventions of a biopic in order to create a drama that was as unique as his central character. One of Marvellous’ most interesting traits was the fact that the real Baldwin appeared throughout the drama in order to advise his fictional self how best to deal with certain situations. At times Marvellous resembled something of a musical as a choir were on hand to perform several songs that related to Neil’s life. As somebody who’s grown up around Stoke-on-Trent part of the charm of Marvellous was the way in which some of the lines appealed to us locals. Overall I rather enjoyed Marvellous; a drama which had its heart in the right place throughout and by the end of the 90 minutes I had a tear in my eye and a smile on my face. Toby Jones was fantastic in the lead role and he was ably supported by Gemma Jones and Greg McHugh among others. Whilst I felt Marvellous was a little too long I was ultimately swept up in Neil’s story and felt that Bowker employed enough interesting flourishes to make the drama feel unique.
ITV2 brought us two returning comedies this week the first of which was Plebs; the ancient Rome sitcom that, according to the trailers, is now ‘multi-award winning’. Although the setting of Plebs is different the humour it employs is instantly recognisable to anybody who watched The Inbetweeners or any other sitcom which has a socially awkward lead. In this case it’s office worker Marcus (Tom Rosenthal) who is completely hung up on his neighbour (Sophie Colquhoun) despite her obviously not fancying him at all. He gets little support from his more free-and-easy chum Stylax (Joel Fry) who is more obsessed with looking as cool as possible. The first episode centred around a story in which both Marcus and Stylax won money betting on a chariot race and decided to spend it in very different ways. Whilst Marcus wanted to spend it on Cynthia; Stylax purchased some chariot-riding accessories hoping to pass himself off as a rider without owning the actual chariot. After being rebuffed by Cynthia, Marcus instead went on a dinner date with his new neighbour (Lauren Socha) who later turned out to be a prostitute. If you laughed at that last line then Plebs is definitely for you, if not then you’re like me who for the most part found the comedy to be incredibly puerile. Plebs at least had a few redeeming features not least the character of Grumio the Slave, who has the best lines and is brilliantly played by Ryan Sampson. The supporting cast give similarly spirited turns including Doon Mackichan as the boys’ horny boss and Neil Stuke as her philandering husband. For a sitcom on a digital channel, Plebs has a fantastic budget and the Bulgarian scenery brilliantly doubles for Ancient Rome. Although I’m sure ITV2′s core audience loved Pleb’s juvenile comedy I’m afraid it wasn’t for me and I won’t be sticking around for more from Marcus and friends.
Coming to ITV2 from ITV is The Job Lot a sitcom that was given a tough time last year due to the fact it was partnered up with the woeful Vicious. Due to its youthful lead character Karl, played by the wonderful Russell Tovey, I always believed that The Job Lot was more of an ITV2 sitcom and now it appears that the powers-that-be have cottoned on to that fact. The only major change to The Job Lot is the opening sequence, whose computer graphics make The Job Lot feel a lot more modern that it did before. The other major change is the character of Natalie (Laura Aikman), the new assistant manager who has been brought in as a new love interest for Karl. The presence of the much younger Natalie has also riled up the bitter Angela (Jo Enright) who once again is seeking revenge against the job centre’s breezy manager Trish (Sarah Hadland). Trish and Karl are also set to cross paths quite a lot this series after the former begins a relationship with the latter’s flat mate. I feel that the strength of The Job Lot is in its writing with Claire Downes, Stuart Lane and Ian Jarvis’ script feeling incredibly realistic. Karl is an identifiable character and appeals to anybody who has ever worked in a job that they feel they don’t belong in. In fact this episode saw Karl apply for his dream job at a computer gaming company only to have his abstract art rejected by the company’s boss. Tovey is excellent as the hapless protagonist whilst Enright steals every scene she’s in as the petty middle management type who believes she should be running the show. The Job Lot isn’t perfect however and I personally feel that Utopia’s Adeel Akhtar is wasted in a minimal role while some of the jokes don’t really hit the mark. But I ultimately think that The Job Lot has more hits than misses and has definitely found its feet after jumping to the channel that it really deserved to be on from the get-go.