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Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Matt on the Box: Recent TV Highlights: The Crimson Field, Undeniable, The Call Centre and The Guess List

We're back with another Matt on the Box special this week looking at new drama, tired docusoaps and a new Saturday night show.

Since the start of the year, the BBC have been promoting their season to celebrate one hundred years since the commencement of the First World War. Up to this point the season has been almost exclusively filled up by documentaries however the network have now offered up a drama set during the time. The drama in question is The Crimson Field and rather than being another epic based around the trenches this programme took place some miles away from the front. The Crimson Field was primarily the story of three volunteer nurses: excitable Flora (Alice St. Clair), studious Rosalie (Marianne Oldham) and the emotionally damaged Kitty (Oona Chaplin). The opening scenes of the drama saw the three women arrive in Boulounge and are drafted to Hospital 25a were they are instantly met with a hostile reaction. This is because the trained hospital staff don't think much of the new volunteers and believe they'll be a distraction rather than a help. This view is especially taken by Grace Carter (Hermione Norris), who has recently been promoted to the position of Matron over the more-qualified Sister Quayle (Kerry Fox). Carter believes that Flora can't make beds while Kitty appears to be a bit of a trouble maker with her habit of answering back. Meanwhile the male members of staff, most notably surgeon Captain Hesketh-Thorne (Alex Wyndham), have their eyes set on bedding one of the volunteers. Although life lessons are predictably learnt by our young volunteers throughout the course of the programme, I thought the most interesting storylines concerned the struggles that were going on between the members of management. The hospital was under the command of the kindly and understanding Lt. Col. Brett (Kevin Doyle) however his boss, Col Charles Purbright (Adam James) didn't possess the same compassion. Purbright believed that unless men were visibly wounded then they should return to the front even that meant sending soldiers with severe shellshock to fight the enemy. The arrival of Sister Joan Livesey (Suranne Jones), towards the end of episode one certainly spiced things up a bit as she certainly had differing views about how to best utilise the volunteers.

I did give the first episode of The Crimson Field the benefit of the doubt as I felt it had plenty of characters to introduce and plot to set up. I'm glad I did as the second episode definitely settled down a bit more as it revealed more about the characters as well as telling the heartbreaking of a Major (Rupert Graves) whose legs had been blown off. The cynic in me couldn't help but think that The Crimson Field was appealing to the Call the Midwife audience as it featured three young inexperienced women who often raised the ire in their more qualified colleagues. But rather than nuns, bicycles and the picturesque squalor of the East End, The Crimson Field has much more of a sense of urgency about it and is realistic in its depiction of the horrors of war. Certainly during the first episode it was the seasoned cast members who stole the show particularly Hermione Norris as Matron Carter who combined an authoritarian nature with a warmer side that came out at times. Suranne Jones similarly shone in a role that was unlike anything she's played before but her turn as motorbike riding Sister Livesy brought a new energy to the programme. Kerry Fox's portrayal of Sister Quayle was also interesting as she reeled the audience in to believe she was a kindly mother figure before revealing her true colours. Episode two let Oona Chaplin do a bit more as Kitty and we finally discovered the true nature of her haunted expressions and why she's so horrid to centre characters. Chaplin has certainly tried to make Kitty a little sympathetic and I think a certain portion of the audience will be intrigued to see where her character's relationship with surly Scottish surgeon Captain Gillan will go. Although I did find that Sarah Phelps' script was slightly on the clich├ęd side I still enjoyed aspects of both episodes and have already decided to watch episode three. The cinematography and visual design of the episode is equally stunning with modern day Wiltshire providing the perfect substitute for war-torn Northern France. Ultimately, The Crimson Field isn't the most original TV drama around but it's still somewhat compelling and features a great cast all of whom are trying their best to make you sympathise with their characters.

ITV's big drama of the last couple of weeks has been Undeniable, a two-parter written by Chris Lang. Lang's dramas, which include A Mother's Son and The Reckoning, have often involved down-to-Earth people who find themselves caught up in extraordinary situations. In addition his dramas sometimes pose a moral dilemma such as what would you do if you were given money to murder a despicable person or would you cover up a murder to save a loved one? Undeniable features a similar question as it tells the story of Jane (Claire Goose) whose mother was killed when she was just seven years old. Ever since that fateful day, which is documented at the start of the first programme, Jane has been at a loss to who the man was. The fact that the police were never able to come up with a credible suspect has haunted Jane all of her life and even caused her to have a breakdown aged eighteen. The Jane we meet in the present day is happy and healthy thanks in part to her loving husband and young daughter. All is going well until Jane spots respected doctor Andrew Rawlins (Peter Firth) at a local hospital and identifies him as her mother's murder. This news is met by scepticism from Jane's father (Robert Pugh) who doesn't want to go through all the stress that his daughter's accusation will ultimately cause. However Jane does find an ally in DI Alison Hall (Pippa Haywood) the officer who worked on the original case and whose about to be made redundant from her job. Although Hall is able to find a connection between Jane's mother and Rawlins he still disputes that he ever came into contact with her. Backed up by his lawyer daughter Emma (Christine Bottomley), Rawlins eventually agrees to take a blood test to prove that his DNA doesn't match that found on the clothes of Jane's late mother. With the tests proving negative, Jane remains determined in her quest to bring Rawlins down even though if it means losing everything she holds dear.

During the first ten minutes of Undeniable I had to ask myself if I could actually make it till the end. The dialgoue was clunky, the characters poorly-drawn and the product as a whole felt lazy. But, by the closing moments of episode one, I was desperate to watching the concluding instalment and discover the truth about Jane's mother's murder. Due to these contrasting feelings it appears to me that Chris Lang is a great storyteller even if he isn't much of a writer. The reveal itself was only somewhat satisfactory as it was much more involved in revealing why Rawlins' blood test was negative than the actual motive behind the central murder. The character of DI Alison Hall was also an interesting one as the divorced detective approaching retirement is often a male part. The fact that Hall wants to have one last moment in the sun adds some extra intrigue to Undeniable and allows the brilliant Pippa Haywood to flex her acting muscles. Unfortunately, the second part revealed that Alison Hall was surplus to requirements as it was actually Emma who ended up solving the majority of the case. As Emma, I felt Christine Bottomely put in an excellent performance as the young woman who'd had quite a tough childhood but had grown up to be a successful barrister. Bottomely's turn in episode two especially proved what a versatile actress she is particularly when you compare her roles in Undeniable and DCI Banks. Peter Firth was perfectly cast as the respected doctor with the loving family whose world comes crashing down on top of him. However I personally found Claire Goose to be rather cold in the lead role of Jane and I was less interested in the drama when she was on screen. Although Goose did try, I didn't feel she made enough of effort to make us sympathise with Jane and although I wanted to know what happened I didn't really care all that much. Overall, Undeniable was a good solid two-parter with a number of fine performances but it's not a drama that anybody is going to remember in over a month's time.

When it first debuted last summer, The Call Centre became a word-of-mouth hit primarily thanks to the wacky antics of Nev Wilshire. Nev, the CEO of Swansea's Saving Britain Money, drew plenty of comparisons to David Brent due to his love of singing and his need to know what was going on in the personal lives of his young employees. Even though I felt that the programme was enjoyable, if a little over-the-top, it appeared to have run out of steam by the end of its first series. The Christmas Special that followed confirmed that there was nothing much left to say about Nev and company. So I was shocked when a second series of the show was announced and I feared that we'd get more of the same. After watching the first episode, it does seem that my fears were justified as Nev attempted to terrorise his new employees and once again initiated them with a sing-a-long. In fact the story involving Nev's recruitment drive almost lapsed into bad taste when he began to insult a potential employee who had a stutter. Although Nev claimed that he did this in order to relax Stuart I have to say I felt a little uneasy during their subsequent interactions. Another of Nev's new recruits, Urshulla, spent her entire time in the episode butting heads with him and refusing to laugh at any of his jokes. To me it appeared as if Urshulla had come along to the recruitment drive purely to get on TV and her stand-off with Nev felt incredibly staged. The only intriguing story throughout the episode was Nev's son, and employee, Phil attempting to earn his father's approval by organising a ping-pong tournament. Although the stories of Phil's upbringing were occasionally touching this story, like all of the others, eventually descended into comedy as Nev defeated his son in the tournament final. With BBC3 still struggling for survival, I think that The Call Centre's return is yet another example of how sometimes the channel get it wrong. Whilst I think Nev is an entertaining character, the decision for The Call Centre to come back was the wrong one and now the channel is lumbered with another five episodes of a series that is simply going through the motions.

Finally, we journey to Saturday night where Britain's Got Talent proved to be incredibly successful racking up the largest British TV audience of the year so far. As I've already reviewed BGT, I'll instead turn my attention to BBC One's new Saturday night entertainment show The Guess List. The show was essentially a take on the classic Blankety Blank as two contestants answer a series of mundane questions alongside a panel of famous faces. However, The Guest List sees the panel answer the question first before the contestant can then agree with one of their answers or choose their own. The highlight of the entire show though is the presentation style of host Rob Brydon, who realises how ludicrous the entire programme is. It's clear that the producers have given Brydon a lot of leeway as he appears to be ad-libbing for large sections of the programme. Due to Brydon's light-hearted style his interaction with the celebrity guests doesn't feel forced and I do think that these segments could've been excruciating when put into the hands of a less jovial host. Brydon bounced especially well off James Corden due to their existing chemistry as Gavin and Stacey co-stars while gymnast Louis Smith essentially became a performing monkey as he was tasked with both singing and dancing. But the surprise of the evening was the participation of Simon Callow who isn't your stereotypical BBC One panel show star. Callow's tremendous laugh coupled with some of his more outlandish answers made him the perfect foil for Brydon and the two played off each other magnificently. The tone of most of the questions was slightly suggestive and as this was a pre-watershed programme there was a little bit of smut thrown in. My big criticism was of the format itself, with not one of the celebrities helping the contestants with an answer all evening. But, at the end of the day, that didn't really matter as I found The Guess List to be perfect Saturday night entertainment that didn't ask too much of me as a viewer and provided plenty of laughter throughout.

If you want to tell me what you thought of this week's TV drop me a line on Twitter @mattstvbites

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