As we look forward to the start of autumn, here are the shows that generated the most buzz over the past week.
Firstly we head to ITV for a drama that made the most of the Bank Holiday weekend by debuting its first two episodes on Sunday and Monday. Not that many people weren’t going to watch the first two episodes of Victoria anyway as it’s been tipped by most as the ‘new Downton’. Going in the most newsworthy element of Daisy Goodwin’s eight-part historical epic was the fact that Jenna Coleman had left Doctor Who in order to play the titular monarch. So all eyes were on the young actress who had to both anchor her own series for the first time and convince as the eighteen year old German princess who becomes queen in the opening scenes of the first episode. The opening two episodes looked at Victoria trying to put on a public face whilst at the same time learn who to trust as her mother’s adviser Sir John Conroy was trying to manipulate the young queen. This led to Victoria making a bad decision when it came to interfering in the relationship between Conroy and her mother by accusing another member of her staff on engaging in an affair with him. The two episodes also saw the beginning of a relationship between Victoria and then Prime Minister Lord Melbourne who takes a shine to her almost immediately. It’s he who is on hand to be in her ear on all matters relating to the monarchy and he who guides her through her early days as queen. But at the same time Melbourne’s position in government wasn’t as stable leading to the queen to make some rash decisions about who to ally herself with. Whilst I think Goodwin has a good handle on the historic aspect of the drama, the one element of Victoria that I wasn’t too thrilled by was the inclusion of a gaggle of servants. Although ITV has made it no secret that they hope Victoria will fill the Downton slot perfectly, the likes of Mrs Jenkins and Mr. Penge are poor imitations of the much better drawn Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson. After watching the first two episodes I’m not sure what these downstairs characters really add to the drama apart from being on hand to clash with Victoria’s former nursemaid turned housekeeper Baroness Lezhen. I honestly don’t think these servants need to be on hand as the political intrigue and romantic longing in Victoria can more than sustain the episodes which makes the below stairs lot come off as afterthoughts.
After watching the double bill of Victoria practically back-to-back I feel that there’s a lot to like about ITV’s historical drama which I feel will have a broad appeal. Top of the list for me is the performance by Coleman whose childlike qualities were well-utilised as the young queen was forced to grow up incredibly quickly. Coleman made you believe in her version of Victoria as the scared child who made rash decisions but who ultimately tried to do the best for her country. The best thing I could say about Coleman’s performance was that I did forget that I was watching the former Doctor Who companion as I was that lost in her turn as the monarch. Coleman also had believable chemistry with Rufus Sewell who in my opinion stole the show as the dashing and loyal Lord Melbourne. I found Sewell incredibly compelling especially in the second episode when he had to deal with the feelings he had for his queen. Unfortunately not all the performances were stand out and some of them in fact boarded on pantomime especially that of Peter Firth who rocked an incredibly suspect facial scar as Victoria’s evil German uncle. As you would imagine for any drama that cost £10 million pounds to make almost everything about Victoria looked fantastic save for the CGI crowd scenes at Victoria’s coronation. Every set was designed to within an inch of its life with all the palaces being beautifully brought to life whilst the costumes were just fantastic with Coleman looking particularly stunning on several occasions. I think Goodwin also wrote an easy to understand story about a young girl trying to succeed in a world of men who were all trying to undermine her. The political plotting to dethrone her as well as her relationship with Melbourne were the two most striking elements of Victoria for me and helped me get through the first two episodes. Unfortunately I do feel that any time that Victoria bobs below stairs things start to drag and it’s almost as if Goodwin feels like she needs these servant characters. I honestly don’t think this is the case when you have such a compelling lead character in Victoria whose story is more than enough to fill eight hours. Additionally I honestly prefer it already to Downton as it feels a lot more focused and less patronising that its predecessor. Hopefully Victoria will continue to provide the ratings it did during its overnights when Poldark returns next week as it’s a drama with a lot of positives to it and one that I hope does well.
Also this week ITV let us know there was only four months until Christmas by bringing back The X-Factor to our screens. After last year’s debacle of a series we were given a sort of greatest hits of The X-Factor with a panel made up of the show’s most beloved judges as well as the return of everybody’s favourite host Dermot O’Leary. To be fair to Dermot I think he’s an amazing host and the horrible combination of Caroline Flack and Olly Murs just demonstrated how good a hand he is at the wheel. Judging from this first episode the panel of Simon Cowell, Nicole Scherzinger, Sharon Osbourne and Louis Walsh are going to be good entertainment too although I already feel that they are outshining the acts. That being said it’s clear to me that Simon Cowell has mellowed a bit whilst Sharon actually dished out some constructive advice to a number of wannabe singers. Talking of the singers they were the usual gang of cliches and comedy acts eager for their fifteen minutes of fame. First up were boyband Yes Lad! who had all the personality but none of the talent yet they were put through regardless. Potential was also seen in sixteen-year-old Samantha who was inspired to sing by her beloved grandfather who was obviously beaming proudly watching on a screen backstage. With the return of Cowell we also got the return of the hand of doom as one young lad got stopped midway through an underwhelming version of ‘Country Roads’. This then inspired him to play a song that he’d written following the death of his younger brother which he just happened to have on hand as a back up. After all these years you know what you’re going to get from The X-Factor and these scenes come thick and fast with dyslexic James being another example of the sort of sob stories we’re going to get from this series. However the most talked about act of the weekend was Honey G; a thirty-something wannabe rapper who got the female judges dancing to her version of a Missy Elliot classic. I’ve got no doubt that Honey G has booked herself a place on Celebrity Big Brother already however her inclusion in The X-Factor takes away from the fact that it has aspirations of being a serious singing competition. That being said The X-Factor is one of those shows that gets an audience full of people like me who watch it regardless as it’s just what you do at this time of year.
Whilst ITV lay out their weekend line-up for the autumn months, the BBC were more concerned with making us chuckle as they presented us with their landmark comedy season. The biggest headlines this season generated were when the news came out that BBC One were rebooting some of their most popular sitcoms all of which aired this past week. First up we had Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais revive their classic Porridge with Kevin Bishop in the lead role as Fletch’s grandson Nigel who has been incarcerated in Slade Prison for numerous cybercrimes. The main plot of the first episode sees Fletch threatened into helping the prison’s most fearsome inmate Richie Weeks expunge his rather colourful criminal record before his parole hearing. This is made harder by the fact that Nigel isn’t allowed near any computer screens since his trial however Weeks manages to smuggle in all the tools our hero needs to carry out his plan. I did feel this revival of Porridge had its issues namely that the script suffered when Clement and Le Frenais were tasked with writing about cyber crime or technology in general. The lines about drones and syncing iPods felt like two old men were writing about things that they didn’t really understand. These moments did make me feel that Clement and Le Frenais could have done with teaming up with a younger writer who had more knowledge of these sort of elements. Whilst the dialogue is patchy, the characterisation is stronger with plenty of hints to the past in the characters of both Nigel and Meekie. The interaction between prisoner and guard was reminiscent of the interplay between Fletch and McKay with the snappy exchanges providing the highlights of the show. However I feel it was the performances that really lifted the material namely that of Bishop who brings a freshness to the character of Fletcher and perfectly interprets the dialogue for a new generation. Bishop has the right sort of energy to anchor a sitcom and has great interplay with the equally great Mark Bonnar as the antagonistic prison guard Mr. Meekie. Depending on the audience reaction I can absolutely see Porridge returning for a full series as I feel the update works perfectly and as long as Clement and Le Frenais are still at the helm I think this updated Porridge could easily find a regular home on BBC One.
The same can’t be said for Are You Being Served? which does very much feel like a one-off celebration of everything that made Croft and Lloyd’s camp comedy so well-loved. Derren Litten’s version of the department store sitcom picks up where the old version left off as we reacquaint ourselves with the staff of Grace Brothers. The basic premise of the show sees the latest Mr Grace attempting to bring the store into the 20th century and in particular updating the practises on the first floor. An injection of new blood into the store comes in the form of Mr Conway whose appointment doesn’t go down too well with the long-standing duo of Mr Humphries and Captain Peacock. They’re even more horrified when they discover Mr Conway has no retail experience but at the same time has a knack of selling jeans to teenagers.You know exactly what you’re getting from Are You Being Served? so you thoroughly expect to see Mrs Slocombe coming through the famous lift doors covered in sewage and complaining about her pussy. If innuendos are your bag then Litten’s script has you covered especially in the scenes involving the dry Mr Rumbold and his perky secretary Miss Croft. Also every effort to play the nostalgia card is taken and the build-up to the famous ‘I’m Free’ catchphrase is milked to all its worth. The cast all seem to be having a good old time of it with Jason Watkins and Roy Barraclough being the standouts as Mr. Humphries and Mr. Grainger respectively. Ultimately this seems to be Litten’s love letter to his favourite comedy and it’s a great celebration of the wide range of BBC comedy that David Croft was responsible for. However, as I’ve already mentioned, I don’t think there’d be any call for it to return for a full series.
Moving on to Roy Clarke’s contribution to the landmark comedy season with the prequel to his beloved Keeping Up Appearances; Young Hyacinth. The 1950s set-sequel sees the future Mrs Bucket working as a maid for a well-to-do family and dreaming of a better life. Fans of the original comedy will be pleased to see that this is the time where Hyacinth starts calling her parents mummy and daddy much to the chagrin of her sisters. Those sisters all show hints of what they’re going to turn out like with Violet already chasing a man who will look after her, Rose chasing any man she can and Daisy trying to hold the family together. Clarke also imagines a younger version of Daddy who works as a broom salesman and who often ends up smooth-talking his female clients. Hyacinth is also quick to paper over the cracks of her parents’ failed marriage claiming her mother died in the blitz whilst in reality she ran off with an American serviceman. It’s clear that Roy Clarke has had Hyacinth’s back story in his head for sometime and relishes the opportunity to tell it. The scenes in which Hyacinth tries to learn words like impersonal whilst at the Cooper-Smith household show the building blocks of what went to make one of our country’s most-loved comic figures. It’s also interesting seeing the family in their original setting living on a house by a canal where Daddy works as a lock master. As this episode was focused on telling Hyacinth’s story there was very little time to show the interactions between Daisy and Rose which in my opinion were some of the highlights of the original series.
If Young Hyacinth does indeed go to a full series then I think Clarke should concentrate on telling the sisters’ stories as much as he does that of his protagonist. Talking of Hyacinth, I would say that Kerry Howard does a good job of calling back the original performance of Patricia Routledge whilst at the same time putting a new spin on the character. Howard is ably supported by Mark Addy as her drunken father and Katie Redford who really makes you believe in her version of the young promiscuous Rose.
Finally we come to Goodnight Sweetheart, the last of the reboots to be announced and for me the one that was most surprising primarily as it wasn’t as well-regarded as the other returning sitcoms. This new episode saw us catch up with Gary in 1962 where he is clearly enjoying life in the pub with his new family however he’s longing to get back to the modern day if only to enjoy a pizza or a curry. He is able to start time-travelling again thanks to being present at his own birth and holding himself as an infant. He returns to a 2016 where everyone is on their phone and his other wife Yvonne is a successful entrepreneur and features as a panellist on Dragons’ Den whilst best friend Ron works as her driver. I have to say I didn’t find much to laugh about in Goodnight Sweetheart and found a lot of the laughs to be quite cheap. In fact one joke really made me feel uncomfortable as Gary was shocked to see a gay couple kissing in public, the fact that this then garnered a laugh from the audience was even more bizarre. The only joke that made me titter was the fact that everywhere Gary went he heard ‘Hello’ by Adele, a song that you couldn’t move without hearing lat last year. Furthermore when he plays it back to his family in the 1960s the lyrics do actually have a lot in common with the themes of the sitcom to the extent where I wondered if Adele was a secret fan.Whilst the jokes often fell flat, Marks and Gran were able to add a little bit of emotion to the episode when Gary realised he had a daughter in 2016 that he never knew about. I felt that the exchange between Gary and his daughter provided the highlight of the episode and to me was the only memorable part of this revival. Ultimately I can’t see the BBC taking a chance on a new series of Goodnight Sweetheart and it almost feels like they’re trying to get on the good side of Marks and Gran after losing the Birds of a Feather reboot to ITV.
Alongside the reboots on BBC One, BBC Two are piloting five new sitcoms with the ones that are received the warmest presumably getting a full series. This week we were given the first three starting with The Coopers Vs The Rest; a traditional family sitcom with a twist in that the family unit is made up of parents and their three adopted children. Written by Andy Wolton, who himself is an adoptee, the series is set around the titular Cooper family headed up by the formidable Tess and her ineffective husband Toby. Their three adopted children are stereotypical stroppy teenager Frankie, intelligent 11-year-old Alisha and the introverted Charlie. This pilot episode saw Frankie discover that Toby had been writing to her for the last two years pretending to be her Indonesian pen-pal whilst Alisha decided that the family weren’t as religious as they should have been. Elsewhere Tess felt that Charlie wasn’t fitting in at school and took him to a birthday party for a classmate that he hadn’t been invited to.As with all of these sitcoms I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt as all the writers have a lot to cover in just over twenty-five minutes. In the case of The Coopers Vs The Rest I felt Wolton did a good job at establishing the characters and the unusual yet quite sweet family unit. I felt for the most part the dialogue was quite realistic even though I don’t think adopted children took about the fact that they’re adopted as much as the Cooper kids did. The three situations that Wolton built up over the episode felt organic and none of them were too far-fetched, even Tess accidentally abducting another child from the aforementioned birthday party was handled in a believable manner. I also felt that the cast had a brilliant chemistry especially Tanya Franks and Paterson Joseph as Tess and Toby as well as the three younger actors who had excellent comic timing. With its gentle touch, fabulous ensemble cast and lack of bad language I can easily see The Coopers Vs The Rest becoming the perfect pre-watershed sitcom that has eluded the BBC for so long. Although this pilot wasn’t perfect by any means I was very impressed by what Wolton and the cast had to offer and look forward to seeing what they’re going to do going forward.
One sitcom that doesn’t have as much chance of succeeding is Lake District-set family comedy Home from Home. The first major issue I had with Chris Fewtrell and Simon Crowther’s sitcom is that you have to believe that Johnny Vegas and Joanna Page are a happily married couple. In Home from Home, Vegas and Page play Neil and Fiona Hackett who cast of their dreary home life and take their sons to live in a new lodge they’ve brought on the Lake District. They soon find they’re living next door to what seems to be the perfect couple in the form of Robert and Penny Dillon. Robert is everything that Neil isn’t and of course he keeps trying to compete with him which bizarrely leads to the pair competing to see who does the best impression of Foghorn Leghorn. Inevitably the families gather round for a barbecue where both Penny and Neil get very drunk and the latter ends up puking in his neighbours’ luxury hot tub. If seeing Johnny Vegas being sick into a hot tub is the sort of gag that gets you chuckling then Home from Home is the show for you. However I found little merit in the character of Neil who was presented as slovenly, rude and inappropriate without any sort of sympathetic aspects that make me root for him. You do wonder why Fiona has stayed with Neil all these years as it feels like she can do much better and that’s possibly why she’s spending so much time with Robert. If there’s any of these characters who I want to spend more time with then its Robert and Penny as the former is incredibly likeable and the latter is absolutely hilarious. It does help that Penny is played by Emilia Fox who seems to be having a great time playing a former party animal who has had her wings clipped and now dreams of Ibiza while lying in her hot tub. Of course the Lake District gets a lot of love throughout the episode as well as there’s several sweeping shots of the countryside whilst Mumford and Sons plays in the background. Home from Home feels like an old, tired sitcom that has little to offer apart from the character of Penny and I’m very doubtful that it will come back for a full series.
The same can probably be said for Our Ex-Wife which comes from American writer Julie Thacker whose credits include three episodes of The Simpsons.Of the five pilots, Our Ex-Wife is definitely the darkest primarily due to the fact that the two central characters fantasise about killing each other several times during the episode. These two characters are Jack and Hillary who are divorced earlier on in the episode before going their separate ways. From there the plot focuses on Jack and his sweet-natured American fiancée Sara who wants to form her own relationship with Hilary if only for the sake of the couple’s two children. The episode builds up to a set piece in which Sara cooks a questionable meal for Hilary to try and get her on side but it has a negative effect. As the title would suggest, by the end of the episode Hilary marches out and becomes both Jack and Sara’s ex-wife. For a season that’s all about celebrating the British sitcom it’s odd that one of the pilots is from an American writer and co-stars a popular Kiwi actress. To be fair to Melanie Lynsky her character is possible the most sympathetic in Our Ex-Wife and there’s times where you want her just to take Jack and Hilary’s kids out of the house and just run for a better life. There’s also a fine supporting performance from British sitcom legend Peter Egan who looks like he’s having a ball as Jack’s forthright father. The problem I personally had with Our Ex-Wife is that it has a nastiness to it that’s too much even in a black comedy. Thacker’s writing has an edge to it which just isn’t very British and the fact that neither Jack nor Hilary are particularly likeable means that you just don’t want to spend that much time in their presence. Although some may like the show’s darker edges, in my opinion there just doesn’t seem to be much scope for Our Ex-Wife to be rolled out as a whole series.
Next Time I’ll be looking at the rest of the comedy pilots plus Cold Feet, Our Girl and Poldark.