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Saturday, 25 January 2014

Matt on the Box: This Week's TV Highlights: Call the Midwife, The Musketeers, Mr Selfridge and The National TV Awards

Welcome to a week when the majority of the TV highlights came on Sunday night.

First up we have the BBC's blockbuster period drama Call the Midwife. Fresh from another extremely successful Christmas Special, this third series sees change afoot for the nuns and midwives alike. This is due to the fact that their beloved Nonnatus House was demolished at the end of the special forcing them to find new digs. Nonnatus House Number 2 is a more spacious and modern building which has advanced equipment for the nurses to use on their house calls. Meanwhile, the beloved Parish Hall is also no more and the weekly Tuesday clinic keeps moving venue. The community centre, an equally spacious and presumably HD set, is eventually chosen for the new clinic however the local mothers are slightly cautious about going for their checks in this new building. Luckily new stay-at-home mum Chummy (Miranda Hart) has plenty of time on her hands since leaving midwifery behind her and so sets out on a leafleting campaign to create awareness of the Community Centre. However, her efforts go too far and she soon finds herself organising a royal visit when Princess Margaret agrees to visit Poplar. Elsewhere, the regular case of the week sees Jenny (Jessica Raine) concerned about the squalid condition one family is living in when both of the couple's young sons are diagnosed with chest infections. After both Jenny and Doctor Turner (Stephen McGann) have run out of ideas it's up to the usually batty Sister Monica Joan (Judy Parfitt) to give a diagnosis to this mystery illness. The reflective voice-over, provided by Vanessa Redgrave, gives us a small idea about the impact this diagnosis caused and how the two boys grew up to live healthy lives.

I do feel that I'm not the target market for Call the Midwife as I would say it appeals primarily to women due to its subject matter and predominantly female cast. However, I still appreciate that it's a quality drama and is trailblazing due to its focus on strong female characters. Indeed, Call the Midwife is one of the only programmes I can think of where all the male characters are either husbands or comedy handymen. In some ways this opening episode of series three focused on new beginnings with the introductions of new sets for both the character's homes and the clinic in which they work. At the same time, the characters seem to be doing exactly what they've done throughout the course of the last two years. Of the more mature cast member; Pam Ferris is the stubborn one, Jenny Aguetter is the rational one and Judy Parfitt is the batty one who stole the show in this episode. Meanwhile Jessica Raine continues to improve as the series' main focus Jenny Lee and Laura Main continues to add more depth to her character as we saw Shelagh Turner prepare for motherhood. For me, the only divisive cast member is Miranda Hart who, while perfectly fine at what she does, shouldn't be getting all of the accolades for the show's success. Indeed Hart's Chummy does plenty of the bumbling comedy that Miranda does on her own titular sitcom. However, I feel that the combination between familiar faces and new talent is ultimately one of Call the Midwife's strengths and it should be applauded for the way it spotlights new talent. Though the story was rather predictable, I enjoyed the majority of this episode of Call the Midwife even if it didn't give us as much of the promised change as I thought it probably should have done.

If Call the Midwife appeals to the nation's female population than BBC One's new adaptation of The Musketeers is one for the boys. Basing the show on Alexander Dumas' source novels; Adrian Hodges, best known for his work on ITV's dinosaur drama Primeval, is attempting to modernise the characters for a 21st century audience. Using the swashbuckling genre as a starting point, Hodges' aim is to stay true to the style of Dumas' characters while at the same time creating new stories based around the historical issues of the time. But, from watching episode one, you wouldn't realise this as I felt that Hodges really played by the books but I think this was fair enough seeing as he wanted to establish the relationships between the key protagonists. The opening scene saw the series' poster boy D'Artagnan (Luke Pasqualino) witness the slaughter of his father at the hands of a man claiming to be Athos from The Musketeers. It was soon quite evident that this man was an imposter and the real Athos (Tom Burke) was busy trying to get the other Musketeers out of various scrapes. This was easier said than done when Aramis (Santiago Cabrera) was sleeping with a woman he shouldn't be and Porthos (Howard Charles) was cheating in a card game to one of the King's Guards. As D'Artganan arrived in Paris to avenge his father, he found himself implicated of murder thanks to the mysterious Milady (Maimie McCoy) and saved by the sweet-natured Constance (Tamla Kari). Meanwhile, the devious Cardinal Richelieu (Peter Capaldi) was attempting to undermine the King's love of the Musketeers by framing Aramis for murder. But it soon became clear that there was more to this story than met the eye and before long D'Artagnan was helping the other Musketeers try to clear Aramis' name.

As somebody unfamiliar with The Musketeers story, aside from the cartoon Dogtanian, I approached this new adaptation with an open mind. What I mostly found was a well-shot and well-executed action drama that would appeal to most male members of the family. Indeed, I didn't really see a lot of Hodges' modernising of the genre as to me this felt like a traditional action epic. That's not really a criticism as everything here was done well, from the fight choreography to Murray Gold's infectious incidental score. The Musketeers definitely looked the part and, from its trendy opening credits sequence, it was a visual treat with the Czech exterior scenes feeling incredibly authentic. But I didn't feel like The Musketeers favoured style over substance and by the end Hodges' simplistic but involving script had certainly intrigued me enough to keep up with the series. Hodges succeeded in giving each of the four central characters a separate identity and I felt like I knew the motivations of each Musketeer by the close of this episode. Meanwhile, the devious Cardinal Richelieu was a perfect antagonist for the boys and was played to perfection by the brilliant Peter Capaldi. Though I did quip that this was one for the boys, the female characters didn't just sit on the sidelines and wait for the men to finish playing with their swords. In fact Milday was possibly the most fascinating character of the bunch with Hodges having set up future stories between her and at least three of the male characters. In addition, Constance proves herself to be a strong-willed individual and even gets to finish off an unnamed guard in the episode's pivotal battle scene. The last third of the episode also saw Hodges' vision slightly realised as he focused on the political problems of the day and demonstrated just how evil The Cardinal was. While I'm not convinced that The Musketeers should be airing at 9pm on a Sunday night, it certainly feels different from the normal period drama that populates this timeslot. Though I'm not sure I'll be watching all ten instalments of The Musketeers, I'll definitely be tuning in next week to see how the various storylines develop.

If the swashbuckling on BBC One wasn't your kind of thing then ITV had a more traditional choice in the form of the second series of Mr Selfridge. Unlike Call the Midwife, ITV's period drama included a ton of changes as we jumped five years into the future. Though still extremely loud and boisterous, Harry Selfridge (Jeremy Piven) has lost some of the bravado he once possessed. This is partly to do with the fact that he is basically married for publicity and his wife Rose (Frances O'Connor) has effectively ended any intimacy she and Harry once shared. They are split even further apart in this first episode when Rose, who splits her time between America and England, befriends the brassy club-owner Delphine Day (Polly Walker). Attempting to curry favour with Rose, Harry lets Delphine hold a book reading at Selfridge's but this almost has a negative effect as Delphine's bok inspires Rose to become more of an independent woman. Returning to the store after a two year sojourn in Paris is Agnes (Aisling Loftus), who is a lot more confident than she was when the series began. Now the Head of Displays, Agnes almost instantly clashes with the store's new Head of Fashion Mr Thackeray (Cal Macanich). Elsewhere, the polarising Lady Mae (Katherine Kelly) had a shock when her husband Lord Loxley (Aidan McArdle) returned to inform her that he was back in London for the foreseeable future. Loxley has been portrayed as a bit of a scumbag already as we've seen him blackmail one of his colleagues and treat his wife like he owns her. Though there was plenty going on with the characters' lives, I got the impression that the majority of this series is going to be about the changes the store goes through during World War One. I personally think it will be interesting to see how the conflict is handled mainly because I hope they do it better than Downton Abbey did.

Mr Selfridge definitely divided opinion when it debuted last year, but it appears to have found an audience as over five million people returned for a second helping last Sunday night. I personally found this opener to be packed full of story, which isn't surprising when you've got a large ensemble cast. The narrative device of leaving five years between series one and two allows Andrew Davies and Kate Brooke to alter their characters slightly. So Harry is looking older and more despondent than we've ever seen him before, meaning that Piven has to tone down his performance in order to suit the character. Similarly, Kelly's Lady Mae has sort of become subservient to her odious and possessive husband who looks to be this year's big antagonist. I'm personally glad that Aisling Loftus has returned to the cast with her portrayal of Agnes being a little bit more colourful than it was in series one. My only hope is that Amanda Abbington, who played the spinster Miss Mardle, returns later in the series as this first episode saw her leave to care for a sick brother. One of my problems with the cast is that very little has been done to trim it down meaning that unnecessary characters, such as Samuel West's Frank Edwards, have returned to do very little at all. Luckily the new cast members add a lot of flavour to proceedings with Polly Walker and Aidan McCardle breathing life into their respective characters. Walker in particular brings a fresh energy to the show and both blend in well with the existing cast of characters. One thing that hasn't changed about Mr Selfridge is its luxurious sets and well-designed costumes all of which makes the show a bit of escapist fluff. Just like with The Musketeers, ten episodes seems a bit much, but this series of Mr Selfridge has got off to a much better start than the last one did.

It's very rare that I get to talk about any televised event from a first-hand point-of-view but that all changed when I attended The National TV Awards on Wednesday night. It was interesting having a bird's eye view of exactly what went into producing a large-scale awards ceremony and also it was great to be in the presence of big names such as Denise the Agony Aunt from This Morning and Mark 'The Beast' from The Chase. In actuality, the only person who I was surprised to see on stage was the great and powerful Kiefer Sutherland though Danny Dyer's almost-mute appearance was very amusing. There were two moments that really stuck in my mind and the first was all to do with the brilliant Educating Yorkshire. From the fact that the Thornhill Community Academy Choir got to perform at the top of the show to the documentary itself winning award; I was incredibly pleased for a programme that genuinely deserved all the accolades it's received. The other moment of genuine emotion came when Julie Hesmondhalgh won the Best Serial Drama Performance Award and dragged on-screen husband David Nielsen up on stage with her. Her speech was incredibly poignant, seeing as her character Hayley had died on Coronation Street two days earlier, and you could see there was genuine affection between the pair. Aside from that, most of the winners were fairly predictable from Doctor Who to Mrs Brown's Boys to everything to do with Ant and Dec. Ultimately, hardly any of our favourite shows from last year got a look in and instead the award winners were a cavalcade of the usual suspects. Thankfully, we've got the TV Baftas to look forward to and hopefully the brilliant Broadchurch will win at least one award then.

To read more of my thoughts on TV follow me on Twitter @mattstvbites

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