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Sunday, 5 October 2014

Matt on the Box: Strictly Come Dancing, The X-Factor, Peaky Blinders, 24 Hours in Police Custody, Scrotal Recall and Detectorists

Hello friends, welcome once again to a look back at the week's TV in which the battle lines were once again drawn between BBC One and ITV's two Saturday night entertainment Goliaths.

In the glittery corner we had Strictly Come Dancing; which returned properly on Friday after the one-off launch show a couple of weeks ago. The two-night extravaganza saw all fifteen celebrities dance for the first time with varying levels of success. Rather predictably the young, energetic pop stars did well with The Saturdays' Frankie Bridge topping the leader board and Pixie Lott also impressing. Meanwhile the more mature contestants struggled with Bargain Hunt's Tim Wonnacot performing a unique cha-cha-cha and Judy Murray making a pigs' ear of her waltz with a kilt-clad Anton Du Beke. The biggest surprise came in the form of Eastenders' Jake 'Max Branning' Wood whose tango was full of intent and saw him garner the second best score of the weekend. Similarly, This Morning's Alison Hammond proved she had plenty of energy and natural rhythm as she filled the dancefloor with her infectious enthusiasm. This year's big change was the loss of Sir Bruce Forsyth who has handed the reins of the show over to experienced hands Tess Daly and Claudia Winkleman. I felt that the girls did well in the new roles and, although there were a few stumbles, the programme appeared to be a lot slicker without the legendary octogenarian stepping over all of his lines. One element of Tess' presenting that I did enjoy was the way in which she introduced each of the individual singers who for so long have simply been presented as background voices. I thought that this definitely showed respect to a vital part of the show which is just as integral to Strictly's success as Dave Arch's orchestra. One of the new touches that I wasn't a fan of was the way in which the judges now dance to their table as I found this a little over-indulgent and it took away some of the much-needed integrity that the quartet usually provided. Despite the average line-up, Strictly still provides some great entertainment throughout the winter months and judging by this opening episode it seems that the glitter will keep shining up until Christmas.

The same can't be said for the competition as The X-Factor descended into nothing more than pantomime during the six chair challenge. The usual Boot Camp festivities were rushed in favour of this new brutal elimination process which debuted last year. Although, at the time, I found the six chair challenge to be fairly intense it was never presented as anything more than a way of finding the acts that would progress to judges' houses. This year it represented something akin to a gladiatorial competition as the rowdy crowd at the Wembley Arena started baying for the judges' blood. Cheryl was given a lot of stick early on when she got rid of the talented Monica Michael in favour of some rather questionable contestants. Whilst her other controversial decision was to eliminate and then reinstate the fame-hungry Marilyn Monroe wannabe Chloe Jasmine in one of the most-scripted moments in the show's history. After Cheryl's debacle the confident Mel B and the cocky Simon streamlined their categories with little in the way of drama. The same cannot be said for Louis Walsh who was the talent show approximation of a rubbish supply teacher who can't keep control of his class and is easy manipulated by his unruly charges. Every time Walsh eliminated an act the audience, who had to have been coached to be as rebellious as they were, attacked Louis who then caved in and allowed each group to return. Even when he did his job right, by eliminating the weakest act in Blonde Electric, he was chastised by his colleagues for getting rid of the fun element in the competition. Several bad decisions and a sing-off later; Louis finally decided on his judges' houses line-up and the final twenty-four were selected. The biggest shocks for me were the eliminations of the desperate Reign and likeable boy band Overload both of whom looked set to progress in the contest. I'm not surprised that Strictly beat X-Factor in the ratings on the two nights they went head-to-head as I found ITV's talent show an agonising watch throughout the weekend. I'm not sure if its just talent show fatigue but I'm already struggling to care about the programme and the live shows haven't even begun.

Away from the heavily-produced drama of The X-Factor we had some well-scripted drama on BBC Two this week courtesy of the second series of Peaky Blinders. I was initially bowled over by Steven Knight's Birmingham-based gangster saga when it arrived last year but at times found it hard to care about the exploits of the Shelby family due to the inconsistencies in the writing. One element of Peaky Blinders that was always on point though was the visual style which was retained in the series two opener. Throughout the course of the instalment there were explosions, a massive fight in a London jazz club and a rather grizzly murder of a blacksmith. The main story of this first episode saw the Shelby family leader Thomas (Cillian Murphy) attempt to expand their gambling empire to the smoke-filled streets of London. Unfortunately there was an uneasiness among the rest of the family as they felt risking what they already had was too big a gamble due to the fact that the Shelbys had plenty of enemies in London. Meanwhile fearsome Shelby matriarch Aunt Poll (Helen McCrory) had her own demons to deal with as she worried about the fates of the two children she gave up when they were young. Although Peaky Blinders was violent from beginning to end it was the final scene that was particularly brutal as Thomas was almost beaten to death by a gang led by the vengeful Sabini (Noah Taylor). I feel much the same about Peaky Blinders as I did last year in that it's one of the most aesthetically pleasing British dramas in recent memory but at the same time the plot is poorly paced. That being said Knight's storytelling has improved and I'm particularly interested in Poll's plight as well as what Thomas now has to cope with from the manipulative Irish policeman played so brilliantly by Sam Neill. In fact the performances are one of the highlights of Peaky Blinders with Murphy being a confident lead and McRory stealing every scene she's in. I'm just hoping that the stories continue to improve as Peaky Blinders because, if its narrative was as impressive as its visuals, then it could become one of Britain's most successful dramas.

But the drama that gripped me the most this week was the tense interrogation scene in Channel 4's latest fixed-rig documentary 24 Hours in Police Custody. The documentary focused on the fact that the police can only keep a suspect in custody for twenty-four hours before either charging them or letting them go. The first suspect to sit in the custody suite at Luton Police Station was Mr Baig, charged with being part of a conspiracy to murder a man who was a love rival of his brother-in-law. Representing the police was DC Martin Hart, a former holiday rep who joined the police primarily due to the fact that he thought he'd be able to cope with the violence that the job entailed. Hart was a likeable sort who initially played the joker before getting serious with Mr Baig as the intensity in the interview room increased. As with all of these fixed-rig programmes we got to see every aspect of the case due to cameras being placed all throughout the station. Additionally the cameras were able to close in on Baig's body movements as he started the interview calm before he began flinching when more evidence came to light. I never thought somebody saying 'no comment' over and over again would be as compelling as it was but due to some fantastic cinematography and editing this documentary managed to do so. Furthermore I enjoyed the way in which we heard every side of the story and particularly the way in which Baig's lawyer talked about how convinced he was of his client's innocence. As I was firmly on the side of the coppers I was shocked to learn that Baig was eventually found not guilty in court, a fact that rightly frustrated DC Hart. After some rather tense moments, I thought that the episode went downhill as we heard about the court case and from Baig following the verdict. But that quibble aside it seems that Channel 4 can do no wrong at the moment when it comes to fixed-rig documentaries with both Custody and Educating the East End being two of the best shows on the box right now. I ultimately found 24 Hours in Police Custody to be an enthralling look at the British justice system which featured likeable coppers and an intense central investigation.

Channel 4 also brought us an enjoyable new sitcom in the form of the awfully-titled but quite funny Scrotal Recall. The comedy's central conceit sees likeable Dylan (Johnny Flynn) forced to contact all of his former sexual conquests after being diagnosed with chlamydia. Dylan then draws up a list of his exes, in alphabetical order, as he prepares to give them the news one-by-one. The majority of the episode is then told in flashback as we learn about how he met the first girl on the list, hotel desk clerk Abigail (Hannah Britland), whilst at a wedding with another woman. The awkward wedding reception is a scenario that has been played out time and time again in sitcoms, but I felt that Scrotal Recall did a good job at keeping the story feeling fresh. This first episode also introduced us to Dylan's friend Luke (Daniel Ings); a sexual predator with no morals who basically attempts to bed as many bridesmaids as possible. At times I found Luke to be too similar to How I Met Your Mother's Barney to believe in him as a realistic character but at the same time he did provide a lot of the best gags. Writer Tom Edge also adds quite a sweet element to the sitcom in the unrequited feelings that Dylan's friend Evie (Antonia Thomas) has for him. Although this part of the plot could come off as clich├ęd; Edge meshes both elements of the comedy well enough for it never to feel too saccharine. As the majority of the sitcom happens three years in the past, I was shocked to discover that in the present Evie is engaged to another man whilst Dylan is left looking forlorn during her engagement party. Although I didn't have massive expectations going into Scrotal Recall I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would and I laughed out loud at least four times during the twenty or so minute run time. Flynn and Thomas are likeable leads whilst Ings brings a larger-than-life persona to the despicable Luke. All-in-all I thought Scrotal Recall showed bags of potential and I'll definitely be tuning in next week for episode two.

This week's other new sitcom couldn't have been any different from Scrotall Recall if it tried. The sitcom in question is BBC Four's Detectorists which is written and directed by Mackenzie Crook who also stars in the lead role. Crook's Andy Stone is a likeable protagonist who spends all of his spare time with is metal detecting partner in crime Lance (Toby Jones). Together the pair spend time discussing University Challenge questions, QI Facts and hunting down retro ring pulls that Lance can then put on ebay. Whilst Lance uses his hobby for monetary gain, Andy is instead in it for the glory and is currently training to be an archaeologist. Although Lance is divorced, Andy has a long-term girlfriend in Becky (Rachel Stirling) who is happy for him to pursue his hobby as she sees it as part of his ultimate goal. However Andy and Becky's relationship looks to be tested by university student Sophie (Amy Ffion-Edwards) who takes a shine to him when he wows her with his metal detecting knowledge. Crook's script for Detectorists is packed full of gentle humour and wry observations about the obsession us Brits have for certain hobbies. This theme is particularly exemplified in the scene in which we see a meeting of the metal detecting society who are listening to a dreary talk about buttons from one of their members. I personally enjoyed Detectorists as more of an observational character study than a comedy with the only truly funny moment being a gag revolving around Google Earth. Crook proved himself to be a fine writer and a reliable leading man but it was Toby Jones who gave the best performance as loveable loser Lance. With his performances in both Detectorists and Marvellous; Jones has proven himself to be an actor who can take on a number of diverse roles and I felt that Lance was definitely the more intriguing of the two characters. Detectorists was definitely an amiable programme with plenty of heart but I'm not sure if there was enough on display to keep me coming back every week.

That's your lot for now, but remember you can follow me on Twitter @mattstvbites for more of my views on the week's telly.

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