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Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Matt on the Box: Recent TV Highlights: From There to Here, Happy Valley, A Very British Airline, Big Brother and Britain's Got Talent

As TV winds down for the summer, and some football tournament or other, this week's Matt on the Box will primarily be focusing on programmes that are coming to an end.

The first series to come to an end this week was BBC's family saga From There to Here which concluded its three week run with a suitably disappointing ending. I was certainly excited about From There to Here when it was first advertised due to the fact it was written by Monroe scribe Peter Bowker and starred the mighty Philip Glenister in the lead role. Set in the late 1990s to the early 2000s, From There to Here certainly had an eye-catching start as the majority of its characters saw themselves caught up in the Arndale Shopping Centre bomb of 1996. It was here that Daniel (Glenister) first came into contact with cleaner Joanne (Liz White) with the two beginning an affair at the start of episode two. Throughout the course of the drama it appeared as if Bowker were suggesting that Daniel's connection to Joanne was partly to do with the fact that she lives in the area where he grew up before being adopted by Samuel (Bernard Hill). Daniel now lives in the opulent end of Manchester in a lovely house, with lovely wife Claire (Saskia Reeves) and a high-flying job as the owner of the family sweet business. But Daniel's life soon comes crashing down on him after his affair with Joanne's results in the birth of a baby daughter. The first two episodes of the drama really dealt with the nostalgia of the era as they focused on key events of the time such as Euro '96 and the 1997 General Election. But by the time we'd got to episode three, which was set in the early days of the new millennium, there was nothing that really differentiated the drama from something that could easily have been set in the present day. The episode's big revelation was that Samuel was in fact Daniel's birth father and he was the product of an affair that his father had conducted during the war. The fact that Daniel acted in the same way as Samuel was Bowker's way of attempting to connect everything together but for me it just didn't work.

I had plenty of problems with the way the drama had ended starting with the montage in which we learnt the fates of all of the supporting characters. One of the main issues I had with the series was that there were just too many plot strands for a drama that was only going to last three episodes. For example the affair that Daniel's MP daughter Louise (Morven Christie) was conducting with factory employee Newell (Ben Batt) hardly had any time devoted to it. So I struggled to care when it was revealed that the pair had been married following Louise's divorce and her loss of her seat to her ex-husband. I similarly struggled to care about Daniel's son Charlie (Daniel Rigby) who bankrupted the family business in order to invest in a disastrous property scheme. In fact the amount of unsympathetic characters was another of From There to Here's issues I struggled to care about a man who was stringing two women along and his smug financier son. The most likeable characters of the piece were definitely Claire and Joanne, thanks in part to the performances from Reeves and White. Unfortunately both had minimal roles in the final episode and only made appearances in the final few scenes where Daniel tried his best to build bridges that he'd previously burnt. The fact that you didn't know if he'd go back to Claire or Joanne was yet another annoying thing about this drama which really needed a satisfying conclusion to justify its existence. On the plus side the performances on the whole were great and I was particularly fond of Steven Mackintosh's turn as Daniel's black sheep of a brother Robbo. The soundtrack brought back plenty of memories and to that end Rob Da Bank must be praised for his selection of period tunes. But ultimately there were more misses than hits in a drama that should have been more impressive than it turned out to be.

The complete opposite can be said for this week's other concluding drama Happy Valley. The last time I wrote about Sally Wainwright's incredible crime series I'd just experienced the breathless end to the fourth episode. Since then Happy Valley has stopped being a drama about a botched kidnapping and instead has been about a woman trying to get revenge against the man who she feels has ruined her family. After being beaten to a pulp by Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton) a few weeks ago, Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) is now desperate to track him down. As we see Royce, who is the father of Catherine's grandson Ryan, is desperate to connect with his son and has killed or beaten anyone who has gotten in his way. One thing I struggled with in this final episode was the coincidental fashion in which Ryan started cycling to school at the same time as Tommy was trying to get him alone. But I'll allow Wainwright a little dramatic license as the final showdown between Tommy and Catherine was truly explosive. Unlike with From There to Here, I cared about every one of the characters with even the villains being given certain sympathetic qualities. Any ambiguities with the plot, such as the nature of Tommy's relationship with Catherine's daughter Becky, felt realistic and the whole thing was tied together with a satisfactory ribbon. The central performance from Lancashire has been outstanding and I can easily see her adding another BAFTA to her collection. As you'll read elsewhere on this site debate is now rife over whether Happy Valley should return for a second series. Whilst I disagree with other successful series returning for a pointless second run, I'm looking at you Broadchurch, I'm not opposed to a second series of Happy Valley as long as the story is strong enough. The final shot of Catherine surveying the Calder Valley suggested to me that the drama had been as much about the area itself as it had been the individual characters. Therefore I could see the exploration of the area's drug-dealing being an interesting area to explore for the second series that Wainwright has claimed is on the way. But even if this second series doesn't materialise we'll still have this almost perfect first run to look back on and for me it's up there in my top three TV dramas of the year so far.

Alongside all of the concluding programmes, there were a couple of shows that made their debut this week. Possibly the most noteworthy was BBC2's A Very British Airline a fly-on-the-wall look at various aspects of British Airways. The documentary is incredibly similar in tone to the channel's previous observational documentaries which took us inside the luxurious rooms of Claridge's and delved into the freezer cabinets of Iceland Foods. I enjoyed both of these documentaries immensely but unfortunately A Very British Airline didn't draw me as much as I would've liked. Not that there was anything particularly wrong with it but it just felt a little lightweight and didn't really give me anything in the way of interesting information. The main focus of the programme is on the latest batch of trainees wanting to become members of the B.A. Cabin Crew. To do so they must make their way through a perilous training course in which they learn everything from how to deal with a dead body to helping an obese passenger with their seatbelt. Featured trainees included self-confessed plane geek Alice and larger-than-life Patrick who seemed like he'd make the ideal air steward. However the programme seemed to focus in on 20-year-old Jodi who'd decide to apply after finding a message in a bottle. Jodi did struggle with the training and by the end of episode one was close to failing the course altogether. One thing the programme did do was make me have a new found respect for Cabin Crew, a profession I'd previously dismissed as fairly lightweight. I also enjoyed how the documentary focused on every aspect of the business down to the engineering crew who had the important job of repairing the planes in the quickest time possible. Just like with Inside Claridge's, A Very British Airline introduced me to a world I'll probably never experience as we venture into the first class section of the new Airbus A380. This was a world of luxury seating and five-course taster menus which is a complete contrast to my cramped flying experiences on various budget airlines. Ultimately A Very British Airline was an enjoyable enough documentary but didn't really hold my interest over the whole hour.

Though some of you may have missed it, Big Brother also returned this week for what was the fourth civilian series since it made the move to Channel 5. Subtitled 'Power Trip', this year's series featured a twist in which one contestant would become the 'power housemate' and would control the fate of the house's new inhabitants. The public chose the first power housemate and selected Pauline, a delightfully batty dancer/rapper whose claim to fame his appearing on Kylie Minogue's Top 10 hit 'Shocked'. Among Pauline's opening decisions was to grant one housemate a pass to the final with Helen being the lucky person who gets to spend three months incarcerated in the institution. Helen is most famous for an affair with Wayne Rooney and is out to prove her detractors wrong. The rest of the bunch seem like they'd be better off on The Apprentice with Oil and Gas headhunter Tamara, Playboy bunny and law student Kimberley and millionaire Steven among the recruits. Although I was initially drawn to Pauline, I think my favourite housemate at the moment is Irish journalist Christopher, even if he won't say what publication he works on. Christopher just seems like the most genuine person in a house full of egos and hormones the latter of which is best represented by Towie reject Winston. I remember when a Big Brother launch night used to be a big deal as we would all gather round the telly to see the new housemates. But those days are long gone and Big Brother now appears to be appealing to the one million strong viewership who will watch the programme regardless of who goes in. This is represented perfectly by a two day launch programme which saw the entrances split over Thursday and Friday night, something I wasn't a fan of. On the positive side I think Emma Willis is a genuinely engaging host and the production values on the programme are incredibly high. I just personally felt no connection to this year's housemates and therefore probably won't be watching on a regular basis.

Something that I wish I'd skipped through more of was this year's Britain's Got Talent which came to an end on Saturday. The final was the usual mix of singers and dancers however for me it was the three variety acts who really stole the show. Having never been a fan of violinist Lettice Rowbotham in the past I was surprised how much she won me over with her rendition of 'Bring Me to Life'. Impressionist Jon Clegg was almost faultless with only his Homer Simpson voice slightly letting him down. I believe that Canadian magician Darcy Oake should have won this year's contest after basically risking his own life for his final stunt. Everything about Darcy's act was perfect and he was the act that felt the most unique and engaging though I think his ultimate downfall was the fact he didn't come from this country. Instead we had a final three full of singing acts, two of whom performed the same song they did in their very first audition. Coming third were rapping teenagers Bars and Melody who speak with American accents and in my opinion are one-trick ponies. Opera singer Lucy Kay's performance of Nessun Dorma was fantastic and of the singers she was definitely the most accomplished. But it was musical theatre five-piece Collabro who won the programme even though I don't think there'd been much improvement between their audition and the final. The fact that Bars and Melody and Lucy both had sob stories about bullying means that their loss is a victory for bullies everywhere. As a whole, this series has been populated by mediocre acts and I was sick of hearing that this year's final was the closest ever. That may have been true but it was only because no act truly stood out and I think that Collabro will have as much success as Jai McDowell had a few years back. I really think that Britain's Got Talent needs another refresh and change to the format which doesn't allow as many singing acts into the final because at the end of the day this is meant to be a variety show.

For more of my thoughts on the week's TV follow me on Twitter @mattstvbites

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