Another week has passed and with it many TV highlights so as always I’m on hand to offer up my own opinions on what’s been on the box over the last seven days.
As its January, BBC One are finally delivering their annual dose of Call the Midwife which returned for its fifth series this week. When writing about the drama I’m always surprised just how popular it’s become but at the same time I do feel there’s a certain snobbery about the programme from those who’ve never watched it. What I find admirable about Heidi Thomas’ drama is how it’s evolved from a simple adaptation of Jennifer Worth’s memoirs to an exploration of the changing role of women in the 1950s and 1960s. Furthermore it’s great to see that the series has survived several cast changes with original stars Jessica Raine and Miranda Hart having both moved on. Rather than having just one star now Call the Midwife operates with an ensemble with each actress getting her own time to shine. This week’s main storyline saw new nun Sister Mary Cynthia (Bryonny Hannah) and Doctor’s wife Shelagh Turner (Laura Main) help during the birth of the third child of Rhoda Mullocks (Liz White). As is always the way with Call the Midwife the central birth storyline never goes smoothly and it soon becomes clear that Rhoda’s new daughter has been born with severe birth defects. The rest of the episode then looked at how Rhoda and her husband Bernie (Chris Reilly) dealt with the different reactions that the couple had to their newest child. Although Rhoda and Bernie’s story was tragic and ultimately had the more emotional conclusion, the more intriguing storyline involved Nurse Trixie (Helen George) and her attempts to get women more in tune with their bodies. Since admitting her alcoholism last series Trixie has joined Keep Fit classes and has recently qualified as an instructor in her own right. However Sister Julienne (Jenny Agutter) isn’t too happy when pictures of the class end up in the local paper which results in a bit of a stand-off between the two feisty females. However this theme of celebrating the female body is an interesting one that I feel Call the Midwife could explore more throughout this series.
As I already mentioned I do feel there’s a section of society who view Call the Midwife as quite a twee Sunday evening drama but those are people who have never seen an episode. Last series alone we saw alcoholism, amnesia and a secret lesbian relationship as well as any number of medical emergencies. This episode was great as it was both self-contained and set out the two themes that will evidently be running throughout the series. Although it was only hinted at during this first episode the cause of little Susan Mullocks’ defects will later be revealed to be the fact that her mother was taking thalidomide, a drug that was prescribed to her by her doctor. As somebody who had little knowledge of the drug itself I was surprised to learn of the large scandal surrounding the prescription of it and am anxious to see how Call the Midwife deals with it in future episodes. The story about the changing face of London in the 1960s was also excellently dealt with via the character of Trixie who has certainly matured during her time on the show. It was great that Helen George was allowed to shine here as I feel she’s grown as an actress over the past four years and I think there may be some new viewers who’ll be tuning in to see her following her performances on Strictly Come Dancing. But the best performance in the first episode came from the ever-reliable Liz White whose turn as Rhoda was simply outstanding as she portrayed her as a strong woman who was willing to accept her new child whatever the consequences. Despite Call the Midwife still having certain cliches that you would expect from a BBC One Sunday night drama, including the dreaded Easter Bonnet parade, overall it’s definitely a lot more progressive than people think. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve watched every episode of the series so far and am looking forward to where Heidi Thomas and her team will take it over the next seven episodes.
Moving onto this week’s other big new drama that comes to us via Sky One and in the form of Stan Lee’s Lucky Man. Sky One had proclaimed that this was the legendary comic book writer’s first British TV show but a quick glance at the credits saw that Lee’s name was surprisingly absent. Aside from his name accompanying the title and a brief blink-or-you’ll-miss-it cameo, there’s very little to suggest Lee was involved with the series at all. The Lucky Man of the title is James Nesbitt’s Harry Clayton, a London cop with a gambling problem who starts the series by being very unlucky indeed. However his fortunes change when he is given a mysterious bracelet by a mysterious biker chick (Sienna Guillory) which he then finds he can’t remove. Although he wins his money back, Harry finds himself as the lead suspect in a murder investigation after the owner of the Chinese Casino which he frequents is killed. I found Lucky Man to be an odd combination of programmes as it tries to mix the mundane world of the London cop drama with the fantastical elements of Stan Lee’s Marvel Universe. One positive of this is that everything is presented with an extra layer of gloss which makes the London exteriors look fantastic and the Chinese Casino appear majestic. Meanwhile the introduction of the mysterious bracelet is at least something new for a British TV drama and the idea that people are after Harry’s new piece of jewellery gives Lucky Man an extra edge. At the same time I found the writing of all the scenes involving the police officers to be quite clichéd especially when Harry was confronted by his new by-the-book boss (Stephen Mackintosh). I personally found the best scenes of the piece to be those featuring Eve Best as Harry’s estranged wife who left him after their house was repossessed. I feel if we’d see more of them together I’d sympathise more with Harry but as it is I found him a rather arrogant protagonist a fact that made it very hard to care about him. Thankfully the casting of James Nesbitt made Harry seem oddly charming and the actor’s fantastic charisma made Lucky Man feel better than it probably was. Overall Lucky Man feels like Sky’s other recent dramas Critical and Fortitude as its well shot and features a great cast but has a script that’s quite generic and characters who I find it really hard to care about.
Staying in the world of the digital channels we journey over to GOLD for the latest instalment of a long running British comedy franchise. The Comic Strip Presents.. Red Top, saw some of the brand’s original cast members including Nigel Planer and Peter Richardson appear beside some new recruits. These new recruits included Maxine Peake who took the lead as disgraced News International boss Rebekah Brooks in this retelling of the phone-hacking scandal that was written like it was set in the 1970s despite its many modern references. Peake provided the narration from Rebekah’s own point-of-view painting herself as a naive Northern girl even though all of her co-workers thought differently. The action played out over 75 minutes and shot at many targets including The Guardian, David Cameron’s attempts to become prime minister as well as the whole phone hacking scandal itself. But despite its satirical edge, I found that Red Top was quite scattershot in its approach and the script never really hung together that well. There were some elements of the programme I liked namely Russell Tovey’s turn as Andy Coulson and his relationship with a stereotypical Sun journalist played by Johnny Vegas. Vegas’ kind hearted reporter was eventually revealed to be the man who exposed the whole hacking scandal and the references to the Watergate Scandal were actually quite amusing. Even though it didn’t really fit into anything else in the piece, I also quite liked the fact Red Top’s portrayal of Tony Blair as a new-wave hippy who’d reinvented himself as a musical God. In a lovely bit of continuity Blair was played by Stephen Mangan who’d previously portrayed the former PM in The Comic Strip’s last outing. However I do feel that the negatives outweighed the positives as I found a lot of the gags a bit obvious for example Wendi Deng’s drugging of Rupert Murdoch in order for her to have control of his empire. Additionally I didn’t think some of the famous faces necessarily needed to be part of the story and this was particularly true in regards to Harry Enfield’s Ross Kemp whose participation in the piece was minimal at best. But my main issue with Red Top was that the central joke about Rebekah Brooks’ innocent outlook on events wore thin by about the halfway point. This is a shame as I believe that Peake did a good job with what she was given but I do feel that the material let her down to an extent. Overall I think that Red Top had some interesting elements but will ultimately go down as a rather forgettable entry into The Comic Strip collection.
BBC One haven’t had the greatest track record when it comes to Saturday night game shows especially in recent years. For every success there’s been a Wipeout, Epic Win or Prized Apart which has failed to net viewers or a second series. This time the channel have essentially tried to turn Top Gear into a game show by having five couples race around various tracks and before taking on the iconic Stig in the final challenge. Adding some Saturday night gloss to The Getaway Car are the exotic Cape Town locations and an amiable former X-Factor host Dermot O’Leary who tries to explain the convoluted concept to us at home. Essentially The Getaway Car sees five teams compete in three rounds with one lucky duo then getting to race against The Stig for the chance to win up to £10,000. The problem I had with the show is that the three rounds prior to the final all varied in quality and the first round was overly complicated. Hazard Highway was an overly-complicated assault course featuring a car wash and a giant football field. Contrasting that was the second simpler and therefore easier to watch round in which the teams had to compete on off road course whilst not knocking down any statues of The Stig. Where The Getaway Car ground to a halt for me was in the third round in which the final three couples had to keep stopping and starting every time they lost a life. I felt that this took away some of the intensity of the show and it almost felt as if those behind the scenes were stalling for time. This also meant that the show had round of steam before we got to the reason we’d all tuned in in the first place, to see someone try to outrun The Stig. Whilst there were some things about The Getaway Car I liked, most notably the laid back presenting style of Dermot O’Leary unfortunately it’s another BBC One Saturday night game show that’s littered with problems. From the over-complicated nature of the rounds to the fact that the passengers have very little to do for the vast majority of the game. I do feel that BBC One need to look to ITV’s Ninja Warrior UK as an example of how simplistic game shows are the ones that sometimes have the biggest entertainment value. Overall though, whilst not as dire as last year’s Prized Apart, The Getaway Car is another costly example of a game show that might have looked good on paper but loses something when it finally gets to the screen.
Saturday night wasn’t the only time we got to see Dermot this week though as he was back on ITV on Wednesday night as host of The National TV Awards. Since Dermot took over hosting the event it has become a much livelier affair with the audience in The 02 always reacting to every little moment. Dermot as well seemed to be in his element, hamming it up during an opening sketch featuring Bear Grylls and opening the show with the brilliant line, ‘at least I still have this job’. Some of the winners were quite predictable with Ant and Dec winning what must be their hundredth NTA Award and I’m a Celeb also scooping a prize. In one of their acceptance speeches the Geordie duo referenced outgoing ITV chief Peter Fincham and with the producer of The Chase also referencing him it almost turned into an appreciation night for the channel head. Luckily it wasn’t ITV’s night with Eastenders winning Best Soap and Strictly Come Dancing taking home the coveted talent show trophy. In the drama categories it was a good night for Doctor Foster which surprised me as I thought Poldark would win both of the dramatic awards. The NTAs was also an interesting place for Suranne Jones to reveal that she was quite pregnant and during her acceptance speech told the audience that she should be at an ante natal class. Meanwhile another of my favourite shows of last year, Peter Kay’s Car Share, won the comedy award and the Northern comic found himself dedicating and late giving his prize to Billy Connolly. Connolly himself was there to be given the Lifetime Achievement award, which to me is usually the highlight of the night. This year I felt the NTAs outdid themselves bringing on a Scottish pipe band before ushering out a rather jet lagged Dustin Hoffman to present the award to Connolly. I thought that the emotional nature of Connolly’s acceptance speech felt a little odd on a night which also featured a drunk Danny Dyer and a skit involving Matisse the Dog from Britain’s Got Talent. But overall this was one of the more entertaining NTA ceremonies as the majority of the winners deserved their prizes and the show zipped along at quite a fast pace.
Next Time: The Great Sports Relief Bake-Off, The Real Marigold Hotel and Murder Games