As we drift through the tail end of summer, it seems that TV is still in somewhat of a flux state as this week’s instalment contains the slimmest of pickings.
We start with the only big release of the week; BBC Two’s sumptuous costume drama The Scandalous Lady W. Natalie Dormer stars as Lady Seymour Worsley the husband of the powerful politician Sir Richard (Shaun Evans) who is treated more like his property than his partner. David Eldridge’s ninety minute drama, adapted from the biography by historian Hallie Rubenhold, had an annoying habit of jumping around the timeline meaning that I could never really relax into the story. The main focus was on Seymour leaving the marital home with her latest lover Captain George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard) only for him to be sued for adultery by Sir Richard. The majority of the drama played out in the courtroom as Sir Richard sought to highlight his wife’s indiscretion while she looked to prove that he wasn’t the injured party that he made himself out to be. In fact it was revealed that Sir Richard was an awful man who rented out his wife to everybody who visited his home whilst he simply watched their liaisons through the keyhole. The narrative flashbacks filled in the gaps as we learned about how Seymour and Bisset first met and fell in love and how her daughter came to be born. Whilst the majority of the drama was quite predictable, the ending was a little surprising for all the wrong reasons. I did feel that Eldridge would let Seymour have her happy ending and roll off into the sunset with George and their daughter but unfortunately this wasn’t to be the case. Instead Lady Worsley’s happy ending was to be revealed in a series of pre-credit subtitles in which we were informed of what happened to after she parted way with both her husband her lover. I personally felt this ending was fairly anti-climactic and indeed I contend that the last ten minutes of The Scandalous Lady W were a bit of a let-down considering what had come before.
I had actually put off watching The Scandalous Lady W for a while primarily as I’m not a fan of Natalie Dormer as an actress. I personally feel that’s she a weak screen presence and the majority of her major roles, in shows such as The Tudors and Game of Thrones, have seen her in some sort of state of undress. The Scandalous Lady W is no different as Dormer spends most of her time in various states of undress and has plenty of steamy scenes throughout the drama. Despite being the central character of the piece, Dormer never really made me care about Seymour all that much and her big speech at the end of the drama fell a little flat. In fact Dormer’s main strengths are as a physical performer and I felt she said much more with her various facial expressions during George’s trial. Thankfully, the drama is somewhat saved by Shaun Evans who gave one of the best performances of his career as the dastardly Sir Richard. As I’m so used to seeing Evans play honourable characters in dramas such as Endeavour and Silk it was a shock to see him portray the villain of the piece. But Evans really seemed to be enjoying himself especially when his character was pimping out his wife to various house guests. I was also rather disappointed with the fact that the script didn’t ask more of Aneurin Barnard who did very little as Seymour’s new partner George. Barnard, who shone in both The White Queen and Cilla, was rather wasted here as the other man in Seymour’s life who realised just what he’d taken on as the drama progressed. This being a BBC costume drama, everything looked fantastic with Seymour’s various costumes being a particular highlight. However I found the classical score to be more intrusive than complimentary and thought that the story was rather elongated to fit the 90 minute running time. Whilst not without its merits, The Scandalous Lady W is a rather forgettable period piece which will be remembered for Evans’ spirited turn and not much else.
Also on BBC Two this week was the leading contender for oddest programme of 2015 in the form of Countrystrife: Abz on the Farm. This show was so bizarre that I couldn’t really categorise it as it was neither a piece of factual programming nor a fictional work. In fact if Abz on the Farm had been a spoof of sorts then it would’ve made a lot more sense but as it was I fail to see who it was aimed at. The programme’s premise sees the musician, most famous for his role in the boy band 5ive, follow his desire to leave the suburban lifestyle and retreat to the country alongside his songstress fiancée Vicky. Early on Vicky describes the pair as Sonny and Cher only without the violence and that piece of dialogue alone should alert you to the tone of the show. At times Abz on the Farm had designs on being a sort of Escape to the Country as the couple were shown round the Lamas Project and learned just how much their rural dream would cost them. As they’ve recently struggled with money, Abz and Vicky are currently relying on the former’s tour of Butlin’s venues alongside his 5ive bandmates to bring in the bacon. However, eventually the pair decide to invest in a pile of bricks in the middle of Wales and buy a caravan to live in whilst their renovating their new home. The show ended with Abz and Vicky purchasing a chicken who then very nearly ended up as a gourmet meal for their five dogs. Even if Abz on the Farm was presented as a serious piece of television, the self-styled music producer would soon make you think otherwise. Abz is definitely the star of the piece and is quite an absorbing screen presence as everything he sees fills him with a sort of childhood wonderment. My personal favourite moment came early on when he was fascinated with a patch of grass before seeing a crop of rainbow chard and exclaiming at the top of his lungs ‘is that rhubarb?’ At just half an hour long, Abz on the Farm never outstayed its welcome and instead proved itself to be an enjoyable if odd show. Although I’m not sure if I’m going to go out of my way to stick with Abz and Vicky’s journey I think that Abz on the Farm is at least a unique idea and it’s fair to say that the BBC has had very few of those this year.
Pleasant surprise of the week came in the form of BBC Three comedy Top Coppers which I thought would be another awful offering to match the woeful Crims. Instead this loving pastiche of 1970s and 1980s cop shows offered some big belly laughs and some wonderful observational gags on top. Writers Andy Kinnear and Cein McGillicuddy have employed a high gag ratio but at the same time haven’t forsaken the plot of the episode over getting cheap laughs. Meanwhile the cast seemingly realise that the best way to pull off a successful spoof is to play it dead straight and that’s what most of them have done. Top Coppers is centred round the Justice City Police Department and more specifically Detectives John Mahogany and Mitch Rust (Steen Raskopoulos and John Kearns). Mahogany and Rust have a strong bond which looks to be tested when the former wants to go out with the new girl in the office rather than enjoy movie night with his colleague. This decision leads Rust to go to some extreme lengths to compensate for his loss which includes trying to recreate certain scenes from the movie Speed. The best recurring gag in the first episode for me involved the fact that gangster Harry McCrane (Paul Ritter) had recently purchased an ice cream factory meaning that the employees now had to produce both ice cream and drugs. Although at times Top Coppers may have been a little silly, I felt that it was one of the more tightly-plotted TV comedies that I’ve recently seen. More than anything Top Coppers was just very funny and that’s more than I can say for most of the British sitcoms I’ve watched during 2015. I’m just hoping that the enjoyment that I garnered from the opening instalment wasn’t a one-off and that Top Coppers will go down as one of my favourite comedies of the year.
Finally, as this was a very quiet week indeed, we head over to ITV for a bit of nostalgia courtesy of The Saturday Night Story. The programme was narrated by the ubiquitous Stephen Mulhern and looked back at some of the most famous Saturday night programmes in British TV history. The Saturday Night Story was an ITV programme first and foremost and therefore promoted its channel’s shows before those of the BBC. The two major segments of the first episode were reserved for ITV shows with Game for a Laugh getting a big mention as Matthew Kelly and Henry Kelly journeyed back to the studio where they presented the show.. But for a child of the 1990s like myself, the biggest joy came at the end of the programme when Ulrika Jonsson was reunited with several stars of the legendary Gladiators as well as referee John Anderson. Seeing the likes of Jet, Saracen, Lightning and Wolf back together in their old stomping ground made me feel a bit misty-eyed and also a little angry that Sky One essentially ruined the format several years ago. Aside from these two reunions, The Saturday Night Story had little to offer in the way of revelations and instead applauded the stunts that occurred on programmes such as Beadle’s About and Saturday Night Takeaway. There was also a fair bit of revisionist history such as the fact that Dancing on Ice was a massive hit on Saturday nights even though most of its series aired on a Sunday. The only two BBC shows that were deserving of praise were Noel’s House Party and Strictly Come Dancing whilst the rest were dusted under the carpet for now. Although I enjoyed ITV’s recent look back at game shows I feel that The Saturday Night Story didn’t have the same depth to it. For anybody who wants a more thorough look at the story of Saturday night TV I recommend BBC Four’s The Battle for Saturday Night which contained plenty of insight. Meanwhile The Saturday Night story was simply a bit of fluff that was used to fill up a few hours before the X-Factor returns in a couple of weeks however at least it brought us that fantastic Gladiators reunion.
Next Time: Educating Cardiff and Celebrity Big Brother