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Saturday, 3 May 2014

Matt on the Box: This Week's TV Highlights: Prey, Happy Valley, Mr Drew's School for Boys, Over to Bill and Rev

Welcome back to another look at the past week's TV.

We start with yet another crime drama on ITV but I can say without a doubt that Prey is nothing like the channel's recent offerings such as Endeavour and Vera. The drama focuses on Marcus Farrow (John Simm) a well-respected police detective who is estranged from his ex-wife Abi (Heather Pearce). It's established quite early on that thing Marcus cares about most in the world is his two sons as we see him put both of them to bed in a rather touching scene. But Marcus is prone to angry outbursts as is witnessed when he overreacts to the news that Abi is seeing someone else even though he believed that they'd get back together at some point. The next day, Marcus arrives home to find that Abi has been stabbed and in trying to save her Marcus implicates himself in her murder. Investigating the case is Susan Reindhart (Rosie Cavaliero) who herself is struggling to deal with the fact that her marriage is over. Reindhart is keen to prove herself to her bosses and therefore believes Marcus is guilty despite his reaction to the news that his youngest son Max was also murdered. Charged with the murder, Marcus doesn't make it all the way to prison as he's involved in a fight in the police van and decides to abscond in the ensuing chaos. Now a fugitive, Marcus attempts to clear his name and is sure that Abi's death and his false imprisonment is related to his latest murder investigation. In an attempt to question a witness who insinuated his family were in danger, Marcus discovers that somebody he trusted may well be involved in the crime.

Writer Chris Lunt plunges the viewer into the action from the opening moments of Prey, which focus on the aforementioned accident in the police van. He then uses flashbacks to show us how Marcus ended up on the run from the law. I loved how Lunt didn't go overboard with the action sequences and punctuated them with plenty of scenes that really let us get to know the characters. The scenes showing Marcus' domestic situation, and his love for his two sons, were particularly vital as they explained the motive for his later attempts to clear his name. Similarly important was Lunt's explanation of Susan's personal life and the motivations behind her belief of Marcus' guilt. The one scene between the pair, a fairly inconsequential moment at a vending machine, was particularly well-handled and I feel that the words spoken here will become more relevant in the next two episodes. In his first role in an ITV drama, John Simm excels in the lead role of Marcus. He is able to portray both Marcus' role as a loving father as well as his more volatile nature. Simm really makes the audience sympathise with Marcus and therefore makes us want to follow him as he attempts to clear his name. Meanwhile comedy actress Rosie Cavaliero is an interesting choice to play Susan but a casting decision that works as she's completely believable as the overly-emotional investigating officer. I feel the decision to have a woman lead the chase on Marcus makes Prey feel different from a lot of other fugitive stories and really adds something to the drama. I ultimately feel that what makes Prey different from a lot of other crime thrillers is the emotional core it possesses. Chris Lunt has crafted two believable characters at the centre of the drama and made sure that we care as much about them as we do the thriller elements of the plot. The result is another great ITV drama and one that is a particular triumph for debut writer Lunt.

This week's other debuting crime drama, BBC One's Happy Valley, shares a lot of similarities with Prey in that they both have action-packed plots which are combined with realistic characters. Sally Wainwright's drama is set in a small West Yorkshire town which has been dubbed Happy Valley due to the large amount of drug use that goes on there. Making sure that the drug-related crimes are kept to a minimum is DS Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) a middle-aged divorcee with a hectic personal life. Catherine lives with her previously heroin addicted sister (Siobhan Finneran) and is having an affair with her ex-husband Richard (Derek Ridell). In addition, Catherine is the primary carer for her grandson Ryan whose mother committed suicide after Richard discovered that she'd been raped. Catherine's discovery that the rapist has recently been released from prison is cause for concern, especially as she attempts to track him down. Catherine's story runs alongside that of Kevin (Steve Pemberton) a put-upon middle management type who asks his boss for a pay rise in order to send his older daughter to a private school. When Kevin feels that he won't get the raise he hatches a plan to get the money and get revenge against his boss at the same time. Kevin enlists local drugs kingpin Ash (Joe Armstrong) to help him kidnap his boss' daughter and then use a portion of the ransom money for his daughter's school fees. However when Kevin learns he'll get the money, as well as a promotion, he changes his mind but learns from Ash that it's too late to back out. Racked with guilt, Kevin tries to confess all to Catherine but his nerves get the better of him before he can explain the true extent of the crime. The episode ends with Wainwright connecting Catherine's personal problems with the kidnapping of Kevin's boss' daughter.

I felt that the first episode of Happy Valley was as concerned with letting us get to know Catherine as it was with setting up the central kidnapping story. Catherine is the next in a long line of flawed heroines that Sally Wainwright has created. Due to her profession and her fraught personal situation, Catherine definitely has a lot in common with most of the characters in Wainwright's other hit crime drama Scott and Bailey. Despite all her faults, Catherine is a sympathetic character who tries to do her best by everyone she encounters, even if it's not that easy. Even though he organised a kidnapping, I did feel I sympathised with Kevin as well as he was a man who'd basically had enough of everybody putting him down. The fact that he tried to go to the police shows that he's a good man at heart and it will be interesting to see what part he plays now that the kidnapping has progressed to the next stage. Happy Valley also has an excellent sense of place as Wainwright grew up in a similar town to the one that is depicted in the drama. Director Euros Lyn lets the audience get to know the area by closing in on both its beautiful scenery and seedy underbelly. Working with Wainwright again, Sarah Lancashire perfectly conveys Catherine's frustration with the area she lives in and the regrets she has about her family's past. Lancashire makes us believe that Catherine really cares about her job even if most of the crimes she's forced to deal with are drug-related. Steve Pemberton delivers an equally impressive performance as Kevin and I feel he's perfectly cast as somebody who has always lived quite a dull existence. My only worry at this early stage is that the botched kidnapping plot won't be enough to sustain another five episodes worth of story. But for now at least I believe that Happy Valley is a fantastically human drama with a gripping story and two superb central performances.

As everybody who reads these columns knows, I was a big fan of last year's smash-hit documentary Educating Yorkshire. However I was also a massive fan of the programme's predecessor, Educating Essex, and in particular the documentary's star, Deputy Head Stephen Drew. This week he returned to our screens in Mr Drew's School for Boys in which he took charge of a summer school aimed at changing the fates of eleven young boys. The eleven lads selected for the project, who are all under twelve, have been chosen due to the fact that they've all been excluded from school at some point. The twist to Mr Drew's school is that all of the boys' parents must attend classes also in order to better understand why their sons are behaving in the way they are. I personally enjoyed seeing Mr Drew again as his legendary spirit was tested by the boys' constant insults and failure to follow the rules. Mr Drew is a teacher who always has the answers to a stupid question and it's clear that he's passionate about the project. The same can be said for the other teachers that have been enlisted to teach the boys even though, by the end of day one, they all look exhausted. While I have great admiration for what Mr Drew and his team are doing I feel the main problem with the concept is that it's been made into a TV show. It's clear from the outset that these boys are aware of the cameras and quickly realise that the more they act up the more they'll get on screen. The brilliance of most of Channel 4's fly-on-the-wall shows is that the fixed cameras capture people in their natural environment, but it was quite the opposite in Mr Drew's School for Boys. The way the programme was edited together was fairly predictable as, by the end of episode one, the boys had started to settle down and Mr Drew had experienced his first breakthrough. While I'm not criticising the idea behind the programme, as all the teachers appear to have good intentions, I just didn't believe what was going on and in the end Mr Drew's School for Boys felt incredibly manufactured.

BBC One aired a documentary on Wednesday night in which it explained the prominence of Comedy Playhouse and all of the great sitcoms that started as one-off instalments during the series. Steptoe and Son, Till Death Do Us Part and Last of the Summer Wine were just three of the shows that were first aired as part of Comedy Playhouse. This year the Comedy Playhouse strand has been resurrected for three new sitcom pilots all which may get a full series at a future date. Based on its initial airing this week, I hope to God that Over to Bill doesn't return as it was completely flawed from start to finish. The premise sounded promising enough as weatherman Bill Onion (Hugh Dennis) was fired from his job at the BBC and had to look for work elsewhere. His mate Jez (Neil Morrissey) promised to arrange a meeting with a powerful acquaintance but this meant that Bill had to keep his friend's horrible fiancée Selina (Helen George) on side. This wasn't easy as Selina was portrayed as a high-maintenance gold-digger who was only marrying Jez for the money he made selling his dog chewing gum idea. I was surprised that Over to Bill was written and directed by such an experienced comedy hand as Red Dwarf's Doug Naylor because to me it felt like the work of a first-time writer. Every cliché was trotted out here from Bill accidentally drinking breast milk to him forgetting to bring a wedding gift to Jez's nuptials and having to stop at a petrol station to purchase a replacement. In addition to the old-fashioned script, the characters were on the whole fairly unlikeable. The only exception to this rule was Bill's wife, played by the lovely Tracy-Ann Oberman, who I felt was far too good for this fool of a man. The fact that the final gag involved Bill and his wife donating bone marrow tells you all you need to know about a programme that more than suited the slot that was recently occupied by such duds as Father Figure and The Wright Way.

It's fair to say that Over to Bill won't return and the same can probably be said for the glorious Rev which aired the last episode of its final series. The sitcom's star and co-creator Tom Hollander has already stated that the show probably won't return for a full-length series but may be revived in film form. But for now at least we will have to reflect on how brilliant this potentially final series has been. The last two episodes in particular, featuring Hollander's Adam Smallborne's crisis of faith, have been truly spectacular. With Adam's resignation at the end of episode five, St Saviour's was demolished and the former vicar was now left looking for a new job. Whilst he felt a career in business consultancy would best suit his talents, he ended up getting a part time position in the grotty local shop that has become a fixture of the programme. James Wood's brilliant script perfectly demonstrated Adam's breakdown as he started to stay in bed all day and ignore the cries of his own daughter. In a lovely narrative twist we heard the thoughts of Alex (Olivia Coleman), Nigel (Miles Jupp) and Archdeacon Robert (Simon McBurney) as they all spoke to God; which is a plot device usually only saved for Adam. A touching final scene saw him return to St. Saviour's where his loyal band of misfits were waiting for him to give his Easter sermon and later witnessed the baptism of his daughter. Rev is one of those programmes that I wasn't instantly entranced by but I've grown to love over the years. This last series has been particularly brilliant and is a testament to all involved particularly Hollander, Wood and director Peter Cattaneo. In regards to whether will see Adam and friends again I would say it's pretty unlikely especially given that the church has now been sold off. But at the same time I think it's one of those 'never say never' situations and I would personally like to see it return for a Christmas Special at some point.

That's your lot for now, remember for more of my TV thoughts follow me on Twitter @mattstvbites

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