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Sunday, 11 January 2015

Matt on the Box: Last Tango in Halifax, Death in Paradise, The Undateables, The Hotel and Crims

Happy New Year one and all and welcome to the first Matt on the Box looking at the major shows that have debuted so far in 2014. As both Broadchurch and Celebrity Big Brother have already been covered in some depth on the site they won't be included in this article however two other major dramas will be.

The first of which, Last Tango in Halifax, began it's third series late last year and reunited us with Alan (Derek Jacobi) and Celia (Anne Reid) as well as their respective broods. I've been a fan of Last Tango since it first began and particularly liked the darker second series which explored the past of Gillian (Nicola Walker) in a lot more detail. With Last Tango's writer Sally Wainwright busying herself with Happy Valley in 2014, I felt that she may not have enough time to wholly devote herself to a third series of this excellent family drama. These fears were compounded by the major story running throughout the first episode in which it was revealed that Alan had a secret son, Gary (Rupert Graves), who was the result of a brief affair Alan had conducted. The introduction of Gary to me felt like a way of just putting another obstacle in the way of the drama's central couple's happiness. However, after a lacklustre opener, Last Tango really kicked in in episode two as the emotional fallout from Gary's arrival started to take its toll on Celia. Celia's realisation that Alan wasn't completely perfect left her reeling and as a result she decided not to attend the wedding of her daughter Caroline (Sarah Lancashire) and her partner Kate (Nina Sosanya). This second episode completely restored my faith in Wainwright's storytelling abilities and it's clear that she knows her characters inside out, a fact witnessed by the icy way Caroline ejected Alan from her wedding. 

Indeed, as somebody who has watched the series since it first started, I feel like I know these characters and therefore their reactions feel utterly genuine. That's possibly why I initially rejected the introduction of Gary into the series, however episode two gave Rupert Graves the opportunity to flesh out the character a little more. But Last Tango in Halifax wouldn't be nearly as good as it is if it were not for the drama's four central performers. Last series I found that both Derek Jacobi and Anne Reid had taken somewhat of a backseat to their younger counterparts, however the opening episodes of series three have really put them back in the spotlight. Reid has been particularly good in bringing out the pricklier aspects of Celia's character and in particular her truly feelings about Caroline's sexuality. One of Reid's strengths is her ability to convey her emotions through a couple of facial expressions that allow the audience to know exactly what she's thinking. Though she's not been as prominent a presence as she was in series two, Nicola Walker has still been magnificent and showed a skill for comic timing during a particularly memorable scene in episode two. But so far this series has belonged to the excellent Sarah Lancashire who, as Caroline, has presented her frustration with Celia in a believable manner. Lancashire portrays Caroline as a formidable yet vulnerable woman whose cool exterior has started to melt thanks to her relationship with Kate. Ultimately, after a shaky start, it's great to have our Yorkshire friends back with us for a third series of Last Tango. Whilst I hope that Wainwright finds a way to reunite the characters once again, I feel that the actors are doing a great job of telling the writer's brilliantly constructed story and I for one hope the series runs and runs.

BBC One also gave us two staples of their crime drama output over the last week with Silent Witness continuing to provide some solid stories in what is now its eighteenth year. But I wanted something a bit lighter so instead decided to tune into the fourth series of Death in Paradise where there was a lot more murder under the sun. In fact the Caribbean island of Saint-Marie is turning into somewhat of a tropical approximation of Midsomer as nearly every one of its inhabitants is bumped off on a weekly basis. This week it was the turn of a rum distillery owner (James Wilby) who was murdered during a séance; making it impossible for the investigating officers to find a killer due to the fact that the key suspects were all holding hands at the time. Luckily, bumbling Humphrey Goodman (Kris Marshall) is on the case as he juggles his latest investigation alongside his pursuit of his partner-in-crime Camille (Sara Martins). Comic hijinks was provided by Red Dwarf alum Danny John-Jules whose slacker Officer Dwayne found himself paired up with the island's haughty commissioner (Don Warrington). I've always had a soft spot for Death in Paradise as it's a crime drama that knows its place as a bit of escapism during the UK's dull winter months. BBC One have been very clever in scheduling Death in Paradise during January; a time I feel that we need uncomplicated crime dramas which can be wrapped up within an hour. Although predictable at times, Death in Paradise is never dull and I feel that this series is already better than the last due to the fact that Marshall appears a lot more comfortable in the role of Goodman. Marshall's chemistry with the cast has improved although I still don't believe in the romantic connection his character is supposed to have with Camille. Meanwhile, the Guadalupe locations allow me to ignore the hurricane that is blowing outside my window and instead enjoy the Agatha Christie-esque mystery that is being solved on my TV screen. Formulaic it may be, but Death in Paradise is still an enjoyably light drama which doesn't take itself too seriously and provides a refreshing change from all of the bleak crime procedurals that populate our TV screens.

Also back for a fourth series was Channel 4's factual entertainment show The Undateables which focused on three more singletons who wanted nothing more than to find love. Fans of the show know by now that all of the participants have barriers in their way of meeting people; usually a mental or physical impairment of some kind. What I did like about this first episode was that it introduced us to its subjects by focusing on their strengths rather than their disabilities. For example adrenaline addict Daniella, who was born with a genetic condition known as Apert Syndrome, was seen riding round in a Quad Bike in her opening scene. Similarly the programme focused on autistic Alex's love of all things car-related and stammerer Matthew was introduced with everything on show as he acted as a life model for an art class. Matthew was the most interesting of this week's characters primarily as he had a rather specific requirement on how broad his date's shoulders should be. Matthew taking a tape measure out on his first date with Jessica, however she took it all in good humour and the two were revealed to be in a relationship at the end of the episode. Alex had similar success with his dating agency match Eloise, as we saw them enjoy a second date in the park following a rather interesting day at Brand's Hatch. But, of the three, I think Daniella overcame the biggest obstacle that being her own self-confidence, as she believed that no man would want to go out with her based on her physical condition. Thankfully her date with the dashing Guy was a success and made her believe in herself, which I think was the point all along. Although the title is still awful and it feels a bit rushed at times, The Undateables is a wonderfully uplifting programme and one whose first episode provided three feel good tales.

Sticking with Channel 4's fly-on-the-wall output we journey to Torquay for a fourth series of The Hotel. Although bumbling Mark Jenkins is still with us his beloved Grovesnor is no longer the hotel of the title and he himself is now a lowly member of staff at the family-run Cavendish Hotel. The premise of the programme is more than a little contrived and is essentially an advert for The Cavendish as well as a way for Mark to maintain the exposure he received during the most recent series. That being said Mark is a brilliant TV personality due to the fact that he doesn't realise how ridiculous he actually is. From making the bar's happy hour last all night to attempting to build Britain's biggest scone, all of Mark's ideas are in the right place even though he doesn't think them through first. Now he's not in charge of the hotel any more, his ideas have been scrutinised by everyone from bar manager Mike; who appears to have a genuine grudge with Mark, to the hotel's owners themselves. One element of this new series I'm not a fan of is the fact that Mark's former employee Alison keeps turning up, presumably as their chemistry was one of the best elements of the previous series. But Alison's recurring turns make for some rather unrealistic moments especially when Mark decides to phone her late at night. What I do like about The Hotel is when it focuses on The Cavendish's guests and most notably its focus on a single dad with very different twin boys. The fact that a hotel can welcome in all manner of guests means that it's a prime location for any documentary crew and I find the production team have done well so far to find some interesting subjects. However, The Hotel is first and foremost about the brilliant Mark Jenkins who continues to be a wonderfully watchable presence as his hair brained schemes continue to be scrutinised by his sceptical colleagues.

In fact at times The Hotel resembles more of a sitcom than a documentary series and it's certainly funnier than this week's only debuting comedy offering; BBC Three's Crims. Before Crims aired on Thursday, several people had been tweeting about how good it was so my expectations were high. Imagine my disappointment then that this sitcom, set in a young offender's institute, was both clichéd and unfunny. Crims' story focuses on mild-mannered Luke (Elis James) who finds himself locked up at Sunnybank View after unwittingly acting as the getaway driver for his girlfriend's dim-witted brother Jason (Kadiff Kirwan). I found it very hard to believe that Luke would be convicted alongside Jason and from then on things just got worse. Nothing had been done to make the characters any different from those seen in previous prison comedies as we had the snitch, the inmate who could smuggle anything into the institution and of course Sunnybank's tough man Marcel (Theo Barklem-Biggs). The jokes, if you can call them that, were repetitive at best, as Jason kept getting Luke into scrapes that meant he was always being beaten up or embarrassed in front of the guards. I personally feel that the most annoying element of Crims was the character of Jason and in particular Kirwin's awful performance. Although Jason is meant to be a bit annoying, his manner is so irritating that you fail to believe that this sort of person actually exists. At times I found myself winding the programme along just so I didn't have to watch another excruciating scene featuring one of the worst comedy characters in recent memory. The presence of Ricky Champ, from the brilliant Him and Her, as the heard guard just reminded me how good BBC Three sitcoms can be. Whilst not as painful as Some Girls, Crims was still a hard show to sit through and I wonder why the usually reliable BBC Three took a punt on this rather annoying sitcom.

Well that's your lot for now, remember you can follow me on Twitter @mattstvbites and I'll catch you next week with more of the same. 

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