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Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Matt on the Box: Educating the East End, Chasing Shadows, Our Zoo and The X-Factor

After a summer of sport and more sport; the TV schedules are starting to return to normal with several debuting dramas as well as a new series of a reality TV behemoth. But we start the return of Matt on the Box with a documentary which will surely be one of this year's TV highlights.


That documentary is the excellent Educating the East End which follows in the footsteps of Channel 4's award-winning Educating Yorkshire. The most notable change is that Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow is dominated by a female leadership team led by the formidable Jenny Smith. Along with her deputy Ms Hillman, Ms Smith's aim is to hammer self-belief into her students and it's clear that the school is devoted to the well-being of each individual pupil. This is seen through the story of Acacia, a Year Nine student whose mum is in and out of hospital with a serious illness. This means that Acacia gets very emotional at school and she often has little time to do her homework due to constant hospital visits. The episode shows the good work that the school does in ensuring that Acacia is well-supported both in and out of school. It's fair to say that the first episode of Educating the East End was dominated by strong female characters with the one exception being the brilliant Mr Bispham. The episode saw the trainee English teacher battle with a rowdy group of Year Nines a class that he would later be observed teaching. Mr Bispham especially struggled to engage Tawny,a  young girl who was much more obsessed with singing than she was learning Shakespeare.By the end of the episode, the producers had got us increidbly invested in Mr Bispham's progress so I for one was willing him on during his pivotal observation.

It always surprises me how compelling Channel 4 make their observational documentaries as they are able to get audiences interested in seemingly mundane topics. But once again they've been able to find a way of showing the nation the good work done by teachers as well as demonstrating how teenagers aren't all that bad. This first episode of Educating the East End was particularly concerned with showing how tough things were for trainee teachers and the long hours they had to put in to deliver some great lessons. Mr Bispham was an incredibly sympathetic character whose long days certainly paid off with a lesson observation which ultimately was judged to be good across all three strands. It was also great to see the relationship he'd built up with his pupils, as they banded together to show Ms. Smith just how good a teacher he was. The episode also showed how dedicated the school was to helping the children grow emotionally with Ms. Smith voicing the need for little pep talks between staff and students. It was clear from episode one alone that the teaching staff do all they can to build the confidence of their pupils as well as attempting to give them a good education. I personally was completely engrossed in Educating the East End from beginning to end as it provoked a wide range of emotions in me. I got rather emotional in the scenes were Acacia was helping her mother round the school, was overjoyed when Mr Bispham's lesson observation went off without a hitch and laughed when he later informed every staff member just how well he'd done. It's a testament to the production team that the Educating series has provided yet another hit and in fact I found it a lot more entertaining and compelling than all of the dramas that aired on TV last week.

Then again I can't say that was particularly hard to do when the only contemporary drama which aired last week was the woeful Chasing Shadows. ITV's latest crime drama focuses on DS Sean Stone (Reece Shearsmith) a brilliant detective whose social skills leave a lot to be desired. After embarrassing his superiors at a press conference, Sean is transferred to the missing persons unit where he's tasked with identifying runaways who may actually be the victim of serial killers. Sean's new partner is the motherly Ruth Hattersley (Alex Kingston) a single mum to an annoying child whose mother is constantly trying to organise her love life. Sweet-natured Ruth is thrown by Sean's rudeness but in turn she's forced to respect the fact that his unusual methods get results. Rounding off our disparate trio is DCI Carl Prior (Noel Clarke), a stereotypically macho detective who verbally berates Sean for going behind his back during their inaugural investigation. It was clear when watching Chasing Shadows that writer Rob Williams is attempting to make Sean Stone another socially awkward detective in the vein of Adrian Monk or The Bridge's Saga Noren. But both of those characters still had some charm to them whilst Sean is completely unlikeable and his behaviour is really never explained during the drama. Williams does hint that Sean may be autistic but its never explicitly shown apart from the fact that our protagonist seems to have some sort of carer doing his housework. I also wasn't wowed by Reece Shearsmith's performance and I really didn't find the character at all compelling. The episode's central story, focusing on a teen runaway, wasn't at all interesting while the supporting characters were poorly drawn. I was surprised at how bad Chasing Shadows was as ITV are usually reliable when it comes to producing crime dramas. However Chasing Shadows is a definite misstep for the channel and is actually one of the worst programmes I've watched on TV this year.

Fairing better was the quaint period piece, Our Zoo which charts the creation of Chester Zoo by telling the story of its founder George Mottershead (Lee Ingleby). At the beginning of the first episode George is depicted as a troubled soul who is still suffering from the shellshock he suffered after World War I. Whilst his wife (Liz White) and father (Peter Wight) are supportive, his mother (Anne Reid) feels he should just snap out of it and start living once again. But George later surprises everyone when he brings home a parrot, a monkey and a camel in quick succession. His family feel that George has completely lost it but he soon formulates a plan; to build a zoo without bars in the grounds of a ramshackle stately home. With its period costumes, quaint narrative and exotic animals; Our Zoo feels like a cosy Sunday evening programme so why it's airing on a Wednesday night I'll never know. That being said playwright Matt Charman's TV debut is unlikely to offend many people and I found it to be an incredibly easy watch. Lee Ingleby is a reliable leading man and he easily conveyed George's motivations for opening the zoo. Meanwhile Anne Reid took what could've been a cliched character and made it three-dimensional. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for all of the cast members with Liz White having little to do and George's teenage daughter feeling incredibly poorly-drawn. Despite the good work done by Ingleby and Reid; the best performances come from the well-trained animal performers who provided some of the episode's most humorous moments. I do feel that episode one of Our Zoo suffered from a large amount of exposition as Charman had a lot of story to fit in. Therefore I believe that the rest of the series will have a better pace to it as the Mottersheads are now tasked with opening their zoo as soon as possible. Although Our Zoo isn't going to win any prizes for originality its a well-natured drama that will appeal to a family audience.

Finally, we come to the much-anticipated return of Simon Cowell and Cheryl Cole to the judging panel of this year's The X-Factor. Cowell hoped that this new judging panel, which also included the debuting Mel B and the ever-present Louis Walsh, would revive the ever-diminishing ratings. After watching the first two episodes it definitely felt as if The X-Factor had turned into the Cowell and Cole show. Cowell presented himself as the authority on every act whilst Cole was there as the eye candy who was also able to cry on cue. I felt particularly sorry for poor old Mel B who was hardly used at all throughout the talent show's opening weekend other than to complain about the male contestants' obsession with the other female judge. Meanwhile Louis had little to do at all which made me think how one-sided this judging panel was when compared to the last few series. I really don't know why Cheryl's return was seen as a turning point for the series as I feel she has very little to offer. In fact I think that Cheryl comes off as incredibly dull especially when compared to former female panellists Nicole Scherzinger and Tulisa. Another issue with the first episode was that it felt like the producers of the programme weren't being completely honest with us. For example military man Jay James was presented as a novice singer when in fact he released an album only two years ago. Similarly posh totty Chloe-Jasmine is an experienced face on the TV having appeared on Sky Living's The Face as well as auditioning for The X-Factor back in 2006. Although I don't have a problem with acts who have previous experience, the fact that these backgrounds have been covered up feels incredibly deceitful. For an entertainment show, The X-Factor takes itself incredibly serious as its presented as this opportunity for singers to gain worldwide noterioty. Unfortunately, after eleven series, we know this isn't the case as is exemplified by the fact that not one of last year's finalists has made an impact on the chart. Based on the evidence from the first couple of this year's episodes, I might not follow The X-Factor at all this year and I feel that it's time for this tired talent show format to retire once and for all.

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

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