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Thursday, 19 September 2013

Matt on the Box: This Week's TV Highlights: Peaky Blinders, The Wipers Times, Mount Pleasant and Strictly Come Dancing

Here we are with another late edition of the week in TV.


From the opening tracking shot of Peaky Blinders I was convinced that the period crime drama was a co-production between BBC2 and an American network. The shot, which features gang member Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) strutting down a street whilst on a horse, felt to me like it could've been lifted from the credits of an HBO show. But in fact Peaky Blinders is an entirely British affair as it tells the story of a gang in post World War I Birmingham and follows the Irish policeman who attempts to stop them. Though Tommy's brother Arthur (Paul Anderson), believes he's in charge of the gang it appears as if ideas are set in the past. Meanwhile, Tommy's forward thinking sees him using Chinese magic to rig horse races, something his brother feels is a mistake. Although Tommy does make mistakes of his own, namely sending some idiot goons to carry out a robbery only for them to come back with a stash of illegal weaponry. This robbery is big enough for the government to get worried so they send CI Chester Campbell (Sam Neill) to shut the Peaky Blinders down once and for all. Neither Chester nor Tommy seems like they will back down easily and so the stage is set for a confrontation sometime down the road. Another new arrival to the area is Grace Burgess (Annabelle Wallis) who manages to get herself a job as a barmaid at the local boozer mainly due to her amazing singing voice. However, Tommy isn't happy about the level of joy she's bringing to the area and seemingly wants her to leave her job behind. Finally we meet Freddie Thorne (Iddo Goldberg), a communist who saved Tommy from a bullet while both were serving in World War I. Due to this incident, Tommy leaves Freddie alone, but I don't know how kind he'd be if he realised that Freddie was having his wicked way with his sister Ada (Sophie Rundle).


I'm usually not a fan of overly-stylised drama as the visuals often take priority over the story. This wasn't the case with Peaky Blinders as writer Stephen Knight took his time to tell the story and introduce the characters. By the end of the first episode I knew who all of the characters were and who's side they were actually on. Knight is also quick to establish that nothing is black and white; as Tommy isn't the cartoonish bad guy while Chester isn't exactly the squeaky-clean law enforcer. Otto Bathurst's direction painted 1919 Birmingham more like the Wild West as he focused on both the outlaws and sheriffs that populated the West Midlands. At times I felt Bathurst went a little overboard on the slow-motion sequences while the over-abundance of rock music occasionally took me out of the drama. The cast were all terrific with Cillian Murphy exuding a strong presence as Tommy, somebody who stops everybody in their tracks whenever he enters a room. Murphy's brooding menace makes you fear what Tommy will do next before he has even suggested taking any violent action. Similarly, Sam Neill's portrays Chester as a man who will go out of his way to get justice even if it means hurting a few people along the way. Meanwhile, Helen McCrory steals every scene she's in as Shelby family matriarch Aunt Polly. Peaky Blinders' combination of stunning visuals, fantastic acting and well-paced writing made it a joy to watch and I'm still utterly shocked that this was made exclusively by the BBC.


Moving back a couple of years to 1916 to the barracks of World War I, we have The Wipers Times, a one-off drama co-written by Ian Hislop. The Times of the title was a satirical newspaper written by a group of soldiers led by Captain Fred Roberts (Ben Chaplin) and Lt. Jack Pearson (Julian Rhind-Tutt). The paper is started when the group of men come across an abandoned printing press and decide to fill it with content mocking the war. Throughout the course of the drama, a number of the wittier pieces from The Wipers Times are acting out, presumably to let us get a taste of the paper's sense of humour. Obviously, the more senior members of the army aren't happy with the paper's content most notably Lt. Col Howfield (Ben Daniels), who frequently attempts to get it shut down. As the war progresses the paper faces closure due to the fact that Roberts' men are constantly moved around but ultimately they all survive. It appears as if Hislop and Nick Newman have written The Wipers Times as a sort of tribute to the satirists that they've always admired. The satirical nature of the paper obviously influenced Hislop's Private Eye, and the final scenes insinuate that Hislop believes that Roberts and Pearson never received a proper tribute. I personally felt that The Wipers Times was a little overlong and could've been about fifteen minutes shorter. The skits were also hit and miss, especially those set in the music hall, but they hardly ever outstayed their welcome. At first I felt as if the script was a little overly flippant but as time went on Hislop and Newman employed plenty of pathos to counterbalance the witty interplay between Roberts and Pearson. Chaplin and Rhind-Tutt were both utterly fantastic and their double act made The Wipers Times incredibly enjoyable. Similarly Michael Palin's cameo as a general added to the Monty Python nature of the comedy and made sure that the drama was never too dark. While I wouldn't like to see traditional dramas like The Wipers Times on every week of the year, it's good that they're still being produced and this was a more than enjoyable way to spend ninety minutes.


It also helped that there was very little option in terms of Wednesday night drama, unless you like drama light and your characters thinly drawn. If that's your sort of thing then you would've probably enjoyed the return of Sky Living's Mount Pleasant a lot more than I did. The Manchester-based cul-de-sac comedy drama essentially features a raft of famous faces who seemingly appear in the programme between jobs. I've been a sporadic viewer of the show since it started but it wasn't hard to pick up on the major plot developments in this opening episode. Central couple Dan and Lisa (Daniel Ryan and Sally Lindsay), are still at loggerheads as she finds herself out of work and doesn't want to discuss the possibility of the pair having kids together. The episode also introduced new couple in social climber Tanya (Samantha Womack) and her wheeler-dealer husband Bradley (Nigel Harman). The pair are obviously going to cause problems for the residents of Mount Pleasant and already start when Tanya snaps at Bianca (Sian Reeves) at her house-warming party. Mount Pleasant's greatest strength is its ensemble cast who all seem to be having fun which I feel lifts the mood of the piece. The script is well-paced and never dwells on one plot strand for too long but at the same time I found there was far too much going on. Everyone in the piece is likeable enough and there are plenty of reliable hands within the cast which also features David Bradley, Paula Wilcox and James Dreyfus. I think my main problem is that I found it hard to care about the majority of the characters and I found them to be fairly two-dimensional. In fact the only cast member who I connected with was Sian Reeves as tart-with-a-heart Bianca, but her scenes in this were few and far between. There's nothing particularly wrong with Mount Pleasant, but I feel it's just a comedy drama that lacks focus and at the same time isn't very memorable.


After giving my thoughts on the new Strictly Come Dancing couples, it was interesting to see who they were paired with on Saturday night's launch show. It's always interesting to see who Anton Du Beke is paired with as they're usually the worst of the bunch, see Ann Widdecombe or Jerry Hall as examples. However, this year he's been paired with former Bond girl Fiona Fullerton which means that he's either slipped the producers a fiver or Vanessa Feltz isn't as bad a dancer as we'd first imagined. In fact it's James Jordan who has a fight on his hands this year as does Aliona Villani who's been paired with veteran golfer Tony Jacklin. Elsewhere the launch show will be remembered for a few moments one being the look on Si King's face when his hairy biker pal Dave Myers was paired up with the gorgeous Karen Haeur. Talking of facial expressions, Peter Crouch's jealous expression will go down infamy as we saw him fuming over his wife's paring with new Eastern European hunk Aljaz. I personally like the idea of this launch show as it warms us all up for when the series properly starts at the end of the month. At the same time I found this year's to be far too long and I really didn't need to see live performances from Rod Stewart of Jessie J. It was almost like they were stalling things as they wanted the celebrities' first group dance to clash with the first ten minute of The X-Factor. But the BBC wouldn't resort to underhanded tactics like that would they?

Remember you can always follow me on Twitter @mattstvbites and I'll see you next time.

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