So the sport has finally finished which means that normal service has been resumed and that proper TV is gradually filtering back onto our screens.
That fact was certainly made clear with the return of a crowd-pleasing favourite that has now arguably become BBC One’s most-loved programme. I’m talking of course about The Great British Bake-Off which this week demonstrated that what makes it so popular is never deviating from it’s successful formula. After an opening segment featuring an X-Factor-esque sequence of talking heads with our twelve bakers talking about how daunting being in the tent was we were plunged straight into the sugar-soaked treats that only cake week provides. The opening signature challenge saw the contestants tackle a drizzle cake which Paul Hollywood admitted was one of his favourites. As we were introduced to the bakers during this sequence, it was clear that the production team already had their favourites. After the first episode I think everybody’s favourite was Selasi; a chilled out baking banker who didn’t sweat after he left the cinnamon out of his drizzle cake and added it to his icing instead. Normally this would spell disaster for a baker but not for Selasi, who produced one of the best cakes in the signature round and who really deserved to win star baker in my opinion. Another baker who provided a lot of entertainment was eccentric ex-headteacher Val whose classic lemon and orange drizzle cake was one that she’d been baking for years. Unfortunately for Val her experience her didn’t count for much especially in the technical challenge when she decided the best thing to do was to cut down the ends of her Jaffa Cakes to make them seem more dainty. Finally we came to showstopper time where the contestants had to create a cake with a mirror glaze. In layman’s terms this meant that the bakers had to produce a big shiny cake that you really wanted to jump through the screen and lick. There were mixed results here with Val again being in trouble after her famous four fruit frosting didn’t strike a chord with the judges whilst youngest baker Michael’s secret ingredient of Matcha Tea made Mary Berry comment that his cake tasted of grass. It did in fact seem like simplicity was key here with eventual star baker; garden designer Jane producing a chocolate orange number that wowed both Mary and Paul.
Although the Bake-Off prides itself on being something different from the likes of The X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent it still seems to want to keep the characters in the show for as long as possible. If The Great British Bake-Off were judged on merit alone then Val probably would’ve left the competition as she had a trio of disasters throughout the weekend. However, due to her quirky nature, she has been allowed to stay another week and instead forgettable church leader Lee was sent packing after an underwhelming debut showing. Although he deserved star baker over the steady but rather dull Jane, Selasi is another baker that I feel will be kept in the competition as long as possible as he’s already a social media darling. In terms of the quality of the baking I do feel it’s down on previous years but then again I feel if you’ve already seen some of the best bakers in the country than after seven series you are going to struggle. I was generally underwhelmed by what a lot of this year’s bakers produced especially during the normally awe-inducing showstopper round which provided only two or three genuinely memorable shiny cakes. However, despite a reduction in the quality of the bakers, I think the show still succeeds thanks to the combination of the judges and presenters. Mel and Sue were on hand with the usual mixture of warmth, wit and innuendos with talks of pink rings and moistness being spread around the tent throughout the episode. What I think makes Mel and Sue so special is that they have a chemistry with both Paul and Mary and the contestants and they generally want them to do well. Additionally, unlike other competition shows, Mel and Sue are hosts who put what they’re doing into perspective and remind the contestants that at the end of the day it’s all about cake. I do also think kindly Mary and picky Paul have developed a great partnership and the bakers know exactly what to expect from each of them. Whilst it’s too early to pick a winner what I will say is that it looks like this will be another successful year for the Bake-Off with this opener garnering amazing overnight ratings. The only thing I’m hoping for now is that the quality of the baking picks up as the series continues as at the end of the day these are meant to be the best bakers in Britain and I feel they need to demonstrate this more.
As well as the return of the Bake-Off, BBC One also brought us their brand-spangling new drama in the form of the four-part Scottish thriller One of Us. One of Us is written by Jack and Harry Williams and, just like their last drama The Missing, poses a large moral question. In the case of this drama, the Williams brothers make us ponder what we’d do if we came face to face with somebody who’d murdered a member of our family. One of Us is all about family specifically two families; the Douglases and the Elliotts who live next to each other on remote farmland in the Scottish highlands. We learn of the connection between the two families early on as we see footage from the wedding video of Adam Elliot and Grace Douglas in the episode’s opening scenes. In a brilliantly judged moment the camera then pans from the wedding video playing on a TV in Adam and Grace’s flat to the sight of their two dead bodies. We are then initially led to believe that their murders were purely the work of a drug addict who’d broken into their flat to steal what he could. But as the episode goes on we learn that he has a connection to at least one of the central characters as he has a piece of paper with the postcode for both the Douglas and Elliott families. The drama then builds to a shocking climax when, during a storm, Grace and Adams murderer crashes between the Douglas and Elliot farms with the latter clan taking him in in order to tend to his injuries. It’s only when they learn the truth about him that they decide they need to protect themselves so chain him up in a dog cage until the emergency services can get to them. But by morning the man has been murdered with all of the suspects being members of the Douglas and Elliott families with the exception of Douglas family friend Alistair. One of the elements of the script I didn’t particularly like was the way in which the Williams brothers shoehorned in the drama’s title about five times into the closing scenes. Almost every character uttered the line ‘it had to be one of us that did it’ or ‘one of us in this room murdered this man’, although I do understand the need to introduce the key theme of the show these lines of dialogue just didn’t feel as realistic as other elements of the show.
Another part of the programme that feels underdeveloped at this stage is the character of Juliet, the detective who is going to be heading up the investigation into the murder. Instead of introducing her in the latter stages of the opening episode we were given several scenes explaining Juliet’s life story. We learn that she has a daughter who suffers from a rare form of cancer and that to pay for the operation she is selling drugs on the side. I just felt there was a little bit too much going on already to introduce this slightly dodgy copper who is doing everything she can for her daughter. I just don’t think enough time was properly given to Juliet’s story to properly breathe and therefore I felt she just was a little lost in the shuffle.On the plus side, it’s refreshing to see the Scottish Highlands on screen. The unique setting almost becomes a character of its own in the episode’s second half. William McGregor’s intense direction almost made you feel the chill of the wind and the thrashing of the rain as the physical and emotional storm thrashed throughout the night. Through the setting you also got a sense of who the characters were with the Douglas family being rooted to the environment whilst the Elliotts all felt a little out of place. The performances were all solid with special mention going to Juliet Stevenson playing grieving mother and recovering alcoholic Louise Elliott. Additionally I was impressed by Joanna Vanderham who shone as her daughter Claire who in my opinion was the most sympathetic character in One of Us’ opening instalment. While the opening episode wasn’t nearly as gripping as the first instalment of The Missing the Williams brothers’ highland thriller still had its moments. The opening five minutes brought the audience into the action brilliantly whilst the tense build up to the murder in the barn was equally as excellent. Furthermore the acting and direction of the piece were both top notch and I feel the majority of the cast will step up when the script asks them to do so. At the moment what I’m really after is more information about the characters because at this point I don’t feel I can really sympathise with any of them despite the tragic event that has befallen all of them. I’m just hoping that going forward the Williams brothers focus on getting us to understand and like the characters more so we can truly care about their loss. If this does happen then I think One of Us could well become one of the best TV dramas of the year however if it doesn’t then it may well just be another well-made but ultimately unmemorable crime thriller. The other big worry is that they’ve perhaps tried to pack too much in to what is existentially a four hour piece of drama. Either way, I think I’ll be sticking around.
More drama this week was provided by Channel 4 with The Watchman which had a documentary-style which made in closer in tone to Cyberbully or The People Next Door. Written and directed by Dave Nath, who helmed last year’s brilliant The Murder Detectives, The Watchman starred Stephen Graham as CCTV operator Carl who spends most of his life cooped up in a small room looking at people he’ll never meet. Early on we get the impression that Carl has gone through some sort of mental breakdown to do with his job that affects his judgement throughout the hour. Carl eventually gets the impression that his calls are being taken seriously so mobilises his mate Lee to take part in some vigilante justice on some youths he sees dealing drugs. However Carl doesn’t think about the consequences of his actions which puts both his friend and later members of his own family in peril. Visually I couldn’t fault The Watchman as it tells its story perfectly through the use of grainy CCTV footage which is perfectly edited together. Nath builds up the tension in the story by having some of the most dramatic scenes play out silently with only Carl’s lip-reading helping the audience decipher what is actually going on. The claustrophobic nature of The Watchman’s setting also makes everything Carl does feel quite insular and you can understand how a man who does the job he does could easily lose his mind. It’s a testament to the acting style of Stephen Graham that he manages to make what is essentially one man sitting in a room watching cameras feel as thrilling as it does. Graham is able to harness the everyman persona perfectly to play Carl as just a normal guy doing a job where he feels like he’s making a difference. However Graham also suggests that there is also a slightly off kilter side to Carl primarily as he’s weighed down by the emotional nature of the job. If I have one small niggle then its that I think The Watchman could’ve been longer as I don’t think Nath was given enough time to explain Carl’s family situation before the action properly got going. But ultimately I found The Watchman to be a very tense and well-paced realistic thriller which had a lot to say about our surveillance-heavy society and one that proved that Chanel 4 really do rule the roost when it comes to documentary-style drama.
Channel 4 also have quite the pedigree when it comes to awkward comedy with their most notable recent offering being the wonderful Catastrophe. This week the channel let Sharon Horgan have a crack at creating another similar comedy with The Circuit which was co-written by her old Pulling partner Dennis Kelly. Maybe commissioning The Circuit was Channel 4′s way of trying to apologise to Kelly for cancelling Utopia a theory that is given credence by the appearance of one of that dramas main stars Adeel Akhtar. In this cringe-worthy comedy Akhtar plays Gabe who has recently moved to a swanky suburban neighbourhood alongside his wife Nat. The entirety of The Circuit is set at the dinner party of their neighbours Helene and Sasha; another married couple who are constantly rowing with one another. Horgan and Kelly set out the awkwardness almost instantly with Sasha striding round his house and making it clear that he didn’t want this new couple anywhere near his house. Also at the party are Marty, who used to be in Banarama and her American girlfriend Angie who manufactures bullets for a living. The final member of their group is Danny, who is constantly talking about wanting to commit suicide despite protestations from his friends and most recent acquaintances. The Circuit is one of those comedies from which you know exactly what you’re going to get namely awkward pauses and overly polite chit-chat. However I found that Horgan and Kelly went too far and made the majority of the characters far too extreme. This was especially true of Sasha, with Tobias Menzies making the man of the house into an overly sensitive diva who looked down on his new neighbours. Similarly his wife Helene was a nightmare, moaning about her goulash and the Cornish holiday that she was about to go on with her husband. I also didn’t find myself laughing all the much and in fact it was the more subtle delivery of Nicola Walker and Desiree Akhavan as Marty and Angie which I found to be the most satisfying. Ultimately there was nothing particularly noteworthy about The Circuit and if this was an attempt to see if an audience would want a full series of a dinner party sitcom than I feel it was unsuccessful. Thankfully Horgan has another two series of Catastrophe in the pipeline to keep us happy and hopefully one day Kelly will be able to give us that final episode of Utopia that’s all ready to go.
Next Time: Victoria, The X-Factor and BBC One’s comedy revivals.