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Saturday, 20 December 2014

Matt on the Box: Black Mirror, Steph and Dom Meet Nigel Farage, The Choir: New Military Wives and The Missing

As this is going to be the final Matt on the Box before Christmas as I'd like to start by wishing my readers a happy Christmas and reward them with my first review of a festive special.

However, I'm not sure how much of a reward the Christmas special of Black Mirror would actually be and I think you'd have to be a rather strange individual to want a rather dark present such as the one Charlie Brooker conjured up. Subtitled White Christmas; the feature-length special of Brooker's dystopian fantasy anthology saw Matt (Jon Hamm) and Sam (Rafe Spall) hauled up in a remote shack in the middle of nowhere. We are told early on that Matt and Sam have barely spoke to each other in the five years they've lived and worked together. As you would expect with Black Mirror, the Christmas element become slightly eerie and from the first time we hear it Wizard's 'I Wish It Could be Christmas Everyday' takes on an ominous tone. Hamm initially plays up to his smoothie persona in the first story in which we learn of Matt's hobby which involves helping losers-in-love get dates. However, as we discover, his most recent client didn't have the best of experiences after he gatecrashed a Christmas party and ended up a reluctant part of a suicide pact. Whilst this first third was suitably shocking the second segment of the programme; in which we saw Matt at work was rather confusing. Although it did go some way to explain the episode's final act I found it to be rather rushed and also felt that it ruined the significant talents of Oona Chaplin. The real emotional core of the episode was provided by Sam as we learnt of his turbulent relationship with girlfriend Beth (Janet Montgomery) which ended when she wanted to abort the baby she was carrying. This story brought with it one of the episode's central ideas; what if we were able to block somebody in real life like we can currently do on Twitter? The answer was incredibly memorable and also provided some really vivid images which stuck with me long after the episode had concluded.

Whilst White Christmas wasn't up there with Black Mirror's best, which I still feel is series two's White Bear, it certainly had its moments. Many of these were provided by Joe's story which I found to be the most profound thanks in no small part to the brilliant performance from Spall. I think that Spall's facial expressions were perfectly utilised as part of a story in which he had to convey emotion by saying very little. The look on his face when Joe was blocked by Beth was particularly powerful as was the expression when he discovered the truth about the daughter she'd given birth to. Black Mirror has always been based around vivid technological ideas and the legal blocking technique felt like a plausible narrative device. On the other hand I'm still not quite sure what the cookie implant story achieved other than giving us one final reveal. Whilst Spall provided the emotional depth that the episode required; Hamm appeared to be having a ball as the sleazy executive who'd overstepped the line in more ways than one. Hamm's performance as the cool Matt was great in the first voyeuristic tale which I thought went a little too far even by Black Mirror's standards. The Christmas theme of the episode wasn't overplayed but was used just enough and I thought Hamm's cooking of the Yuletide dinner was a nice touch. One thing I did find was that Brooker struggled to write a feature-length instalment and, although all the pieces fit together, the middle of the episode really dragged for me. However, I can't say that Brooker didn't provide a powerful piece of Christmas television and it's also fair to say that that no other festive special will have the same tone as Black Mirror. Ultimately I found White Christmas to be a unique special episode but I feel that the Black Mirror series works better in forty-minute episodes rather than in feature-length instalments.

Channel 4's other big programme of the week was something altogether different as the posh ones from Gogglebox invited a special guest to their Guest House in Steph and Dom Meet Nigel Farage. I've been a massive fan of The Parkers ever since I first saw them on Four in a Bed and my love for them has only doubled since Gogglebox began. But even I struggled to see the point to this twenty-four minute programme where the UKip Leader came to The Salutation to share many drinks with Steph and Dom. The show was mainly based around drinking as Dom and Nige absconded to the local at one point whilst the latter had to later change his trousers after spilling pink champagne over them. There was a vague attempt to grill Farage about certain policies but as political inquisitors go Steph and Dom aren't quite in the same league as Paxman. Farage did try to use the programme to create sympathy in the eyes of the viewers by talking of his near death experience and his cancer diagnosis at a young age. But nothing that happened over the course of the programme was really of any consequence and I can't imagine anybody changing their views about Farage after having watched it. A lot of people have criticised Channel 4 for allowing Farage to have this free platform in which to air his views but if anything this was more of an advert for Steph and Dom's guest house than anything. It personally felt as if Channel 4 were testing the waters to see if a Steph and Dom chat show would work and I have to say that their chemistry and banter was a joy to watch. Even though the programme was ultimately a whole lot of nothing I'm hoping this is the first in a long line of show in which Gogglebox couples spend time with political leaders. I particularly would love to see Boris Johnson spend some time with Sandra and Sandy as I feel that combination would definitely provide some classic moments.

Moving onto something a little bit more sedate now as BBC Two welcomes back Gareth Malone for The Choir: New Military Wives. In the three years since 'Wherever You Are' go to number one in the Christmas charts the popularity of the military wives choir has just grown and grown. Gareth's mission in this new two-part programme was to put together a super-choir featuring the 100 best vocalists from the various military wives choirs throughout the country. Anybody who's watched any of The Choir series in the past really knows what to expect from this new venture as we see Gareth assemble the group, pick the songs and then watch the struggles that the women have. Gareth's biggest challenge in the programme is to try to get his choir to master an eight part version of Holst's 'Ave Maria'. This proves to be a problem primarily as, due to geographical restrictions, his choir can rarely be in the same place at the same time. Meanwhile the women are finding the prospect of giving an unaccompanied performance at the BBC Proms quite daunting. As the story was very slight there was a lot of filler in this episode such as Gareth journeying around the war graves in Ypres and one of the choir members talking to her grandfather who served in World War II. I personally don't think that the programme played to its strengths as I don't feel like I got to know the choir members as much as I would've like to. Indeed, most of the highlights came from the moments in which the women spoke candidly about their fears for their husbands' well-being. The episode ended with the choir serenading returning servicemen in the airport with a lovely interpretation of Elgar's 'Snow'. It's these sorts of scenes that I'd like to see more of in the concluding instalment however I don't think Malone and the show's producers have done enough to entice me to tune in next week.

Finally, we come to the most-anticipated TV programme of the week as BBC One's gripping drama The Missing came to an end. As The Missing is a drama that deserved my full concentration I wasn't online during the episode therefore I didn't realise how many people weren't a fan of the ending. Writers Jack and Harry Williams revealed quite quickly that young Oliver Hughes hadn't been snatched whilst at the pool with his father but had simply ran off after a fox. He was then run over by drunken hotelier Alain (Jean-Francois Wolff) who, believing him to be dead, asked his Mayor brother Georges (Eric Godon) to clear up the mess. However, Oliver wasn't dead and the Romanian gang that Georges entrusted to finish the job did just that with utterly devastating consequences. I personally thought this reveal was great as it put together all of the pieces of the puzzle perfectly but at the same time didn't give Tony (James Nesbitt) the resolution he was after. The final scene; in which the obsessive Tony was arrested in Russia still searching for the son he hoped was alive left a lot of viewers incredibly frustrated. But I think that this is perfectly in line with the tone that the Williams brothers have created throughout the series and I for one wasn't expecting a happy ending. One element of the final episode that didn't sit right with me was the suicide of Vincent Bourg (Titus de Voogdt) as it almost appeared that the brothers couldn't think of another way to end the character's story. But this was a minor niggle of the final episode of a series which has been full of stunning set pieces and BAFTA-worthy turns from its brilliant ensemble cast. James Nesbitt in particular has given the performance of a lifetime and there's no justice in the world if he doesn't receive a nod from the academy next year. As much as I enjoyed this first series of The Missing; I'm not sure if I'm particularly bothered about the newly announced second run. In fact it feels like The Missing is joining a list of shows such as Happy Valley and Broadchurch which are simply returning due to the popularity of their original incarnations. But right now I only have praise for The Missing; a series that challenged its viewers constantly and was all the better for doing so.

So that's your lot for 2014; I'll return next year with two special Matt on the Box instalments looking at all the festive highlights. Until then remember you can follow me on Twitter @mattstvbites for more of my views on the week's telly. And once again have a great Christmas and a very Happy New Year.

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