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Thursday, 16 January 2014

Matt on the Box: This Week's TV Highlights: The 7:39, The Bletchley Circle, The Taste, The Undateables and Benefits Street

Welcome back to my look at the best and worst of the last seven days in TV.

As we leave Christmas behind us we enter a rather drab and rainy January and so we look to the TV for escapism. A captivating love story sound like the ideal choice to while away the winter blues but after I watched David Nicholls' The 7.39 I found it a lot more realistic than some would have liked. The 7.39 of the title is a commuter train that ferries plenty of workers from the suburbs and into London Paddington. One man who has been taking this journey for many years is Carl Matthews (David Morrissey), who has two teenagers who don't appreciate him and a job he hates. Carl's life is made better by the presence of his loving wife Maggie (Olivia Coleman) who fails to notice that he's become annoyed with the routine his life has become. Sally Thorn (Sheridan Smith) is a more recent passenger on the train since moving from London to the same unnamed town as Carl. Health club manager Sally has been convinced to move by her fiancĂ©e Ryan (Sean Maguire), a fairly possessive personal trainer. Sally and Carl's friendship doesn't get off to a good start as they fight over a seat on the train. But, after he apologises, they break the cardinal rule of train travel and begin a conversation. It appears as if their new-found friendship is helping them both break out of their routines; him at home and her with planning her wedding to Ryan. Inevitably, after several flirtatious meetings, they find themselves in a hotel room and start a full-blown affair. But the course of their relationship doesn't run smooth as Ryan suggests that he and Sally move to Australia and then Carl loses his job. Ultimately, Carl and Sally decide if they should stay as a couple or if things were better when they confined their romance to the train.

From Cold Feet to One Day, David Nicholls has always succeeded in creating believable romances between characters that you really care about. Here he has achieved at least half of this as both Carl and Sally are completely realistic characters that you really care about as the drama goes on. I was instantly drawn to Carl after we saw his morning routine and the fact that his children took him for granted. You could see the twelve years doing the same commute were taking their toll and the fact that he got into an argument about a train seat showed me how desperate the majority of his life had become. Sally was similarly well-drawn with this being a woman who was still unsure about settling down and marrying a man who was a little bit too regimented for her liking. I utterly believed that these two would form a strong friendship based on their need to find something new outside of their suffocating routines. However, where the drama fell down for me was when Sally and Carl began their affair. Good fictional romances really rely on the audience rooting for the central couple to be together, but as regards The 7.39 I never once wanted Carl and Sally to live out a long-lasting relationship. Part of the reason for this was because Olivia Coleman was playing Carl's wife Maggie and I don't think anybody would want to have an affair if they were married to her. Talking of the cast; Morrissey and Smith were both utterly superb and brought life to their already well-written parts. Of the supporting cast, Coleman was great as usual however Sean Maguire seemed to be playing the same role he did in Scott and Bailey. Although I felt that the drama petered out towards the end of the second instalment; for the most part I was engrossed by The 7.39 due to the great script and fantastic ensemble cast. But ultimately I don't think this was a romance I could escape into, primarily as I didn't believe that the central couple belonged together.

Much more generic drama was provided courtesy of The Bletchley Circle, which returned for a second last week. I personally enjoyed the code-breaking drama when it first began back in 2012, but I really didn't feel it needed a new series. This time it was bookish Jean (Julie Graham) who reunited the titular quartet primarily to get a former colleague out of prison. It appears as if the brilliant Alice (Hattie Morahan) has killed her lover and former boss John Richards (Paul McGann). Jean's attempts to reunite her friends initially prove fruitless with Lucy (Sophie Rundle) enjoying her new job at Scotland Yard and Millie (Rachel Stirling) busy acting as a translator. The hardest person to recruit appears to be Susan (Anna Maxwell Martin) who appears to be still traumatised by the events of the first series. But, rather predictably, the gang is soon back together and discover that Richards sent a bunch of flowers to another woman. After a bit of detective work they find out the woman is Elizabeth Lancaster (Faye Marsay) and as they snooped round her flat they found sensitive documents that belonged to Richards. Though the group appeared to be close to solving the case, Jean was chastised by Alice for her investigative work and wanted to take the blame for the murder. I have to say that I struggled to get through this first episode of The Bletchley Circle and found it rather dull in places. I feel that the central issue was that writer Guy Burt favoured telling the mystery story over developing his four female leads and telling us what had happened to them since the last series. In particular I wanted to know more about Lucy and Millie, both of whom were afforded only a bit of time on their own before they joined the group. This meant that the brilliant Rundle and Stirling didn't get much screen time while Anna Maxwell Martin struggled to make Susan seem vaguely likeable. Only the brilliant Graham was really allowed to shine as Jean evolved from the disapproving old maid to the head investigator. Although The Bletchley Circle is stylish and has great period detail; I was severely underwhelmed and I have to say that I was right in my suspicions that this was a drama which should have remained as a one-off miniseries.

I always find it odd when a cookery show is scheduled during primetime as it just doesn't feel like it should be competing against some of the big dramas that other channels are offering. This was true of The Taste, a British adaptation of the American hit starring our own Nigella Lawson alongside her fellow original judges Ludo Lefebvre and Anthony Bourdain. The Taste borrows heavily from The Voice in so much as the coaches don't see the contestants before they sample their offerings. They then have to make a decision whether or not to take them forward into their teams. What I liked about The Taste was that it pitted professional chefs against home cooks each of whom had their own ways of doing things. Whilst the professionals often went too far, the amateurs kept it simple and generally provided better flavours in their dishes. Obviously if two mentors want the same chef then a bidding war begins which usually favours the incredibly passionate Anthony over the barely comprehensible Ludo. At the end of episode one; twelve chefs remained with each judge having a kitchen of four and ultimately hoping to win the contest. As someone who had never watched the American version of the show, I was unsure as to where the contest goes next or how contestants are eliminated. I feel that this was one of the problems why the show did lure me back for a second helping. Other than that, despite it being terribly formulaic, I found The Taste to be an enjoyable slice of cookery competition. I personally would've preferred it to be on at 8pm rather than 9pm as I don't think it suited its later slot and the only reason it needed to be on post-watershed was due to some rather unnecessary swearing. However, while there was nothing particularly wrong with The Taste, I just don't think I have the time to devote to another competitive cookery show.

As well as bringing us The Taste, Channel 4 gave us another treat last week in the form of the third series of The Undateables. The show introduced us to three new singletons all of whom found it hard to date for one reason or another. My favourite member of the trio introduced in this first episode had to be Mary, a forty-four year old single mother who had a rare form of dwarfism. Mary struck me as someone completely unique and I really felt as if the producers of the show were telling a story they hadn't previously told. Mary was quite a feisty and independent woman but at the same time had to make sure that she was running all her decision past her teenage son. The programme also focused on Daniel, a young autistic boy, who struggled to comprehend the fact that he'd have to engage in conversation during his date. Though the scenes focusing on Daniel were incredibly sweet, I felt its ground that has been covered on the show before and therefore I really learnt nothing new. I personally could've had a whole show devoted to Daniel and Mary; but the producers felt otherwise and so gave us a third undateable in the form of Hayley. Hayley suffered from a rare condition which meant her legs, arms and face were all deformed, but she really hoped that she'd one day find her Prince Charming. I felt the show was a little disrespectful in dealing with Hayley's story mainly because she only appeared in a handful of scenes. Though her date with council employee Chris appeared to go well, there was no real follow-up and I felt that her story was poorly-handled. Overall though I feel that The Undateables still has its heart in the right place and has a great message, namely that everybody deserves to be loved.

I initially wasn't planning on watching Benefits Street for this post mainly due to the fact that I'd already seen Skint last year and they both looked incredibly similar. But, after all of the controversy and news reports, I felt that I had to at least give it a watch. The documentary focused on James Turner Street, a Birmingham road where the majority of the residents were claiming some sort of benefits. The press notes for Benefits Street suggested that this would be a programme about community spirit and those who had no money looking out for each other. There were elements of that scattered throughout with the maternal White Dee helping her less intelligent neighbours navigate the tricky wording of letters from the DWP. There was also Smoggy, a man who came round the street with small portions of tea, washing-up liquid and other consumables charging 50p per unit. I found Smoggy to definitely be the unsung hero of Benefits Street and he was the one character who really fit into the remit of austerity Britain. However he was sort of outdone by the more sensationalist characters like Funghi and Danny two petty thieves and drug addicts who instructed the general public how to steal items from Primark using only tin foil and a heavy bag. The scenes in which Danny was arrested for breaking an ASBO were incredibly shocking and felt like they were shot for entertainment rather than to tell the serious message of the show. I'm really at a loss to see why Benefits Street has provoked a lot more outrage to the aforementioned Skint. Both focused on families living on benefits and both were similarly brutal in their depiction of their characters. Whenever Benefits Street focused on the community aspect of James Turner I did really enjoy it but I feel those segments were engulfed by the more extreme moments of theft and drug abuse. Ultimately, while there's a whole other debate to be had about Benefits Street, as a TV documentary it felt unfocused and dragged on far too long for my liking.

For more of my thoughts on TV, follow me on Twitter @mattstvbites


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