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Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Matt on the Box: New Year's TV Highlights: Sherlock, Silent Witness, Nan, Birds of a Feather and Splash!

Happy New Year to all and welcome to this first new edition of Matt on the Box covering the first five days of 2014.

It was indeed a happy new year for all of us who have been anticipating the return of Sherlock for the past two years. The first of the two episodes that have already aired was The Empty Hearse, which had the big job of explaining how exactly Sherlock faked his own death. Mark Gatis pulled the wool over everybody's eyes by acting out a number of scenarios throughout the episode some of which were crazy theories put forward by fans of Sherlock. In fact The Empty Hearse of the title is actually a club featuring former police detective Anderson (Jonathan Aris) who rightly believe Sherlock isn't dead. Meanwhile the man himself eventually appears having brought down Moriarty's network from the inside and heading back to London on the instructions of his brother Mycroft (Gatis) who is worried that an underground network is plotting a terrorist attack on London. Though Sherlock does offer Anderson an explanation of how he faked his death, it is left up to the audience whether or not they believed it. I personally felt the main purpose of The Empty Hearse was to get Sherlock and Watson (Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman) back together again. The scene in which Sherlock finally met up with Watson was well-choreographed and saw him disturb Watson's proposal to his new girlfriend Mary (Amanda Abbington). It's a rocky road at first but Watson finally comes round and forgives Sherlock when the two are trapped on a tube train they believe is going to explode. Though there's happy ending of sorts, we get the impression trouble is round the corner when we get our first glimpse of the series' new antagonist (Lars Mikkelsen).

I was expecting to see more of the Scandinavian villain in episode two so I was surprised when The Sign of Three was almost exclusively based round John and Mary's wedding. The majority of the episode revolved around Sherlock's best man speech and saw him deliver several anecdotes about he and John's time together. As the episode went on however it appeared as if murder was on the menu when Sherlock realised that one of the guests was about to be bumped off. I personally felt that The Sign of Three felt more like an episode of Murder She Wrote than an instalment of the Sherlock franchise as murder begins to follow the central characters around. It was also more comedic than the normal episodes which usually balance the thriller and comic aspects alongside one another. That's not to say I didn't enjoy The Sign of Three and if Sherlock was a series that had say six episodes then it would be a fun diversion but it felt like a bit of a waste to have one third of series act as a a whimsical aside. Despite minor faults, both of these episodes proved why Sherlock is still one of the best British TV shows of the 21st century. Cumberbatch and Freeman's chemistry has grown year on year and their relationship seems stronger here despite Mary getting in the way of the bromance. The cinematography and editing throughout the episodes was fantastic and I especially enjoyed The Sign of Three when we got to journey inside Sherlock's mind, even when he was a little tipsy. More than anything else though, Sherlock is one of the programmes that I can sit back and just enjoy rather than overthink every little plot point. As a TV critic, it's rare that I actually get to do that and in a way that demonstrates how perfect Sherlock really is.

Most of the other British crime dramas can't even hold a candle to Sherlock and Silent Witness is a case in point. Now in its seventeenth series, Silent Witness continues to rake in the big ratings, something that baffles me as it leaves me cold every time I watch it. The first double bill of this new series saw the introduction of Thomas Chamberlain (Richard Lintern) the latest member of the central team. He instantly insults the rest of the team primarily Nikki (Emilia Fox), when he tells her he's replacing the heroic Leo. This change in the team comes as they're trying to solve two murders; one of a well-to-do housewife and her autistic son and the other of a disfigured woman retrieved from a skip. One or both of these murders are thought to be linked to footballer Isaac Dreyfuss (Hugo Becker), who is already in hot water due to several statements he made on Twitter. As the link between Isaac and the murders isn't made till the third act of the first episode I found most of the scenes featuring him a little pointless. I thought the character of the arrogant footballer was thinly drawn and Isaac was one of a number of supporting players that just didn't feel like they belonged in the normal world. There were also several unbelievable scenes, most of which featured Kaye Wragg's DS Anne Burchett who tried to push her theory of a murder-suicide after learning of the young boy's autism. The scenes in which she basically told the grieving father that anybody with a handicapped child would have those sort of thoughts was truly shocking, and I fail to believe that he wouldn't have made some sort of complaint following this interaction. On the positive side I do like the chemistry between the central team especially the friendship between Jack Hodgson (David Caves) and Clarissa Mullery (Liz Carr), whose verbal sparring provides some light to an otherwise murky drama. While watching this episode it does feel like, after seventeen years, the team behind Silent Witness have run out of ideas. This episode was sloppily written and I personally found it fairly dull but I still believe that if it continues to attract large audiences then the BBC will renew it for series eighteen.

It's fair to say that Catherine Tate has had an interesting couple of years; from her role in the American version of The Office to acting on the stage I feel she's come a long way since her sketch show. However this week saw her revive one of her most popular sketch show characters, Joannie Taylor, for a one-off special Nan. At first I thought Nan would be simply an extended version of the sketch show the plot of the programme was fairly endearing. It saw Nan being paired with teenage volunteer Alice (Ami Metcalf) while her grandson (Matthew Horne) is off building a school in Africa. The main thrust of the episode concerns Nan's taps and her constant fights with the council to get it fixed. In her own unique style Nan's interactions with council representative Miss Donnelly (Nikki Wardley) land her in hot water and eventually see her serve two community service orders. Eventually though Nan is able to save the day by allowing her Indian neighbours to host a wedding in her flat. Anybody who loved Nan's foul language and bad attitude wouldn't have been disappointed by what they saw here. However I was surprised that Tate fleshed out the character especially in constructing a relationship between Nan and Alice. I feel the episode really benefited from the appearance of Ami Metcalf, who so good as the young Kathy Burke in Walking and Talking. Metcalf and Tate made a fine double act and I particularly enjoyed Alice's confrontation with Miss Donnelly. The focus on the bureaucracy at the council was also a story that most people could identify with and they could understand Nan's frustration and the way she dealt with the problem was completely believable. Ultimately I found Nan to be funny, endearing and a sitcom that was well-paced throughout. If all the episodes are of the same quality as this special then I wouldn't mind seeing Nan return for a full series at some point. But for now I can definitely say that Nan was a big surprise as I didn't see myself enjoying it at all.

Another sitcom that surprised was the return of Birds of a Feather, a show that I wasn't expecting that much from. Originally airing to large audiences on BBC One, Birds of a Feather has been snapped up by ITV following a successful stage run. When we return to Chigwell, sisters Sharon and Tracey (Pauline Quirke and Linda Robson) have fallen out after the former criticised the latter's new husband. The two bump into each other outside a bookshop as they await a signing for their favourite book 'Sixty Shades of Green'. There's really no surprise to most of us when the author of the book, Foxy Cohen, turns out to be none other than the vampish Dorien Green (Lesley Joseph). Eventually, the sisters are reunited after it's revealed that Tracey and Ralph divorced when he tried to steal her money. It transpires that the reunion was engineered by Tracey's son Travis (played by Quirke's real-life son Charlie) as he didn't want his mum to be alone when he goes off to uni. But Tracey's house soon fills up pretty quickly when a distressed Dorien arrives on the scene having been sued by the makers of Fifty Shades of Grey. Unlike the recent attempt at rebooting Open All Hours; Birds of a Feather seems like it has been updated for the 21st century. Most of the updates make sense such as Dorien's new career as an erotic author and Sharon's new job at pound shop 'World of Quid'. Birds of a Feather also survives because of the chemistry between the three lead actresses all of whom have impeccable comedy timing. While I do concede that the humour isn't exactly cutting edge, the frequency of the jokes is so high that even if one didn't make me laugh there was one a couple of seconds after that. Ultimately this is a traditional sitcom that doesn't have to resort to bad language to make laugh and one that has updated its humour just enough to make it relevant while at the same time maintaining the themes that made it so popular the first time around.

One programme that wasn't exactly popular the first time around was Splash!, with most people wondering why it was recommissioned in the first place. It's not exactly like Tom Daley's celebrity diving show was particularly praised the first time round and in fact ended up on a number of lists for the worst TV programmes of 2013. I do feel that once they'd learnt of their recommission, the producers should have set about making major changes to the show to counteract such negative feedback. Instead, based on this first episode at least, there doesn't seem to have been any alterations made at all. The very least that the team could have done was remove Jo Brand from the judging panel as her inclusion alongside two diving experts makes very little sense. I do love Jo Brand as a comedian but her inclusion here is comical for all the wrong reasons and her lack of expertise takes away any credibility the show could've had. The other issue I had was that I really knew how each 'celebrity' was going to dive before they even stepped onto the board. It was no surprise that the little lad from Diversity, who is now apparently eighteen, got more points than the guy who used to play Gary in Eastenders. In fact I was most interested to see how big Gemma from The Only Way is Essex would do and in fact I personally felt she provided the most entertainment of the entire show. I can't be the only one as, despite low scores, she appeared in the Splash! Off alongside eventual victor Michela Strachan. The ultimate flaw with Splash! is that there is too much padding between each celebrity dive which takes only a matter of seconds to complete. With Splash! losing to Pointless Celebrities in the ratings on Saturday I can't see it being recommissioned for a third run, especially as it's going up against The Voice UK this week.

For more of my TV ramblings follow me on Twitter @mattstvbites

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