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Sunday, 12 April 2015

Matt on the Box: The Island, Code of a Killer, Vera, Thunderbirds are Go and The Voice UK

It's been yet another eventful week in the world of TV and now it's time to have a look back at some of its many highlights.

It's fair to say that Bear Grylls is a rather ubiquitous TV presence at the moment what with his ITV Mission Survive show coming to an end and a new series of The Island beginning. I was somebody who missed The Island the first time round so was looking forward to seeing exactly what I'd been missing. The twist this time was that Bear was dropping off two groups of fourteen Brits on their own deserted Pacific island; one of men and one of women. I wrongly believed that this would lead to identical programmes where both groups had roughly the same experiences over the hour. In some respects I was right as both arrived on their respective islands completely drenched and later had moments of euphoria when they made their first fires. But, apart from that, things went differently for both teams over the course of their first few days. Whilst the men managed to get to the beach on their first day, it took the women three days to do so and even then they had to retreat to gather the rest of the group who'd stayed behind at a temporary camp. Both episodes of The Island challenged my notions of gender stereotypes as, before the programmes began, I believed that the men would bond a lot quicker than the women. However, I was wrong as the men clashed routinely with builder Paul and contract manager Andy being the biggest offenders. Indeed, by the end of episode one, both were determined that they were going to leave the island alongside youngest traveller Joe. Meanwhile, the women were a lot more united, partly because I think they needed to prove that they weren't the weakest sex. I personally feel that that they did this with the possible exception of the show's first evacuee Welsh hairdresser Jayde.

Although I hadn't seen the first series of The Island I kind of knew what to expect and, certainly during the men's episode, that's what I got. There was a load of in-fighting, failure to build a fire and a struggle to find fresh water. Although the women experienced similar hardships, I found their episode more engaging possibly as it's something that hasn't been done before. The reason I think I enjoyed The Women's Island more is that their group were intrinsically more likeable. Whereas the men wound each other up constantly, the women were working together which led to somewhat of a harmonious environment. The one element of the show I question is why Bear Grylls is particularly needed as I didn't think he added anything to the overall product. Although his is a recognisable name he does little after dropping off the two groups on their islands. Even though his asides to camera to split up the action to an extent, he offers very little insight and the expert information he offers is often very obvious. I personally believe that The Island is an interesting enough idea and could easily have survived without Grylls' name being attached to it. Going forward I'm not sure if I'm going to stick with both islands for the duration as I think two hours a week is a little too much to devote to this sort of programme. However, I'm certainly more intrigued to see how the women get on as they were still struggling to get settled in a final camp. Additionally, the female campers are the more sympathetic of the two groups and therefore I think I'm going to ditch the men's island altogether and just see how the women get on.


Moving on now to two ITV crime dramas the first of which is fact-based saga Code of a Killer. Michael Crompton's two-parter  told the story of how the identification of genetic codes helped police to catch murderers. Half of the episode followed Dr. Alec Jeffreys (John Simm) as he attempted to crack the code and identify people by their DNA alone. After he made his breakthrough we saw how he used his research for good which was exemplified when he helped a young Ghanaian boy avoid deportation. At its heart though Code of a Killer was a police procedural drama as it focused on the murder of teenager Lynda Mann in the small Leicestershire town of Harborough. Leading the investigation was DCS David Baker (David Threlfall), whose determination to catch the killer was exemplified when he used up all of his resources to move his team to the town's cricket pavilion. As Crompton's drama progressed we learned that Baker's efforts had been fruitless as we followed his search over three long years. Unfortunately for Baker things only got worse as a second teenage girl from the same area; Dawn Ashworth, was found murdered in similar circumstances. Another teenager who'd been lurking round the investigation for some time finally confessed to the rape and murder of Dawn. However, Gavin Hopkirk (Tobias Burton-Rudge) was unwilling to admit that he was also involved in Lynda's murder. Finally, and rather predictably, Baker sought Jeffreys' help to prove that Lynda and Dawn had indeed been murdered by the same man. Whilst the DNA coding did reveal that the girls' killer was the same person it also transpired that that person was not Gavin Hopkirk.

I went into Code of a Killer with slightly low expectations so I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the drama. The majority of my enjoyment came from the performances given by Simm and Threlfall; both of whom seemed committed to making the story as compelling as possible. Though their characters may have been clichéd, I felt that their performances lifted the material and made it seem better than it probably was. Threlfall portrayed Baker as a man who was visibly hurt that he was never able to catch Lynda's killer and the discovery of Dawn's body only made things worse. Threlfall made me invested in Baker's plight and therefore I was willing him to crack the case and catch the murderer. Although Simm was lumbered with a lot of scientific jargon, I felt he made Jeffreys relatable especially through his relationship with his long-suffering wife. Despite not being a fan of Simm's accent I believe that he brought out enough quirks in Jeffreys to make him believable. I'm personally looking forward to the second episode to see more of Threlfall and Simm on screen together as they already seem to have great chemistry. Code of a Killer isn't perfect and at times Crompton's script makes the piece seem like just another ITV crime drama. The long shots of the sinister, shadowy figure in the car coupled with some farcical interrogation scenes made Code of a Killer feel tiresome at times. But thankfully, for the most part, the pacing of the piece was perfectly judged so I never found myself tuning out of the drama. As I wasn't familiar with the story itself I also found myself intrigued by Jeffrey's discoveries and Baker's eventual call for help. The most positive thing that I can say about Code of a Killer is that I was compelled enough to want to watch the closing instalment. This was ultimately due to the fine central performances and also because Crompton's script just about avoided being another clichéd crime drama.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said for Vera, which returned for a mind-boggling fifth series this week. DCI Vera Stanhope (Brenda Blethyn) is still the same old wise-cracking copper however she now has to contend with the loss of her only ally DS Joe Ashworth. Taking Joe's place is DS Aiden Healey (Kenny Doughty) whose brash approach doesn't go down too well with Vera. But wouldn't you just know it that throughout the course of the drama they earn a begrudging respect for each other and develop a smooth working relationship. One of the problems with Vera is that its two hour running time is far too long and therefore each of the central mysteries feels over-extended. Martha Hillier's story of a murder at a holiday park was the perfect example as Vera and Aiden experience far too many dead ends before they finally caught the killer. As you would expect everybody who knew the victim had a secret to hide whether it be growing a secret cannabis stash in a chalet or indulging in long-running affairs that were too close to home. It's fair to say that I've watched a lot of crime drama of the past few years and therefore it's quite easy to spot who the killer eventually is. The secondary characters never felt believable and they weren't likeable enough to really care about and I felt that this took away any interest I had in Vera actually cracking the case. There are only two positive things I can say about Vera the first of which is Marek Losey's assured direction. Losey perfectly captured the exterior shots of the coastline and initially drew me into the story thanks to the opening explosion. Blethyn was also on fine form however she's no longer ably supported due to the fact that the dependable David Leon has moved onto pastures new. The fact that the majority of Vera's staff now look like they've stepped off the pages of a fashion catalogue makes me believe that the producers have tried to freshen up what was thought of as a dowdy drama. However, I don't believe that they've succeeded and I'm just hoping that this will be the final series of this tiresome police procedural.

Sticking with ITV now who, on Saturday night, introduced their revival of a British TV institution; one that many of us had fond memories of. Thunderbirds are Go reintroduced the Tracy Brothers and International Rescue to a new generation of young viewers who will hopefully take the characters to their hearts like others did before them. I personally remember the revival of the original series as I grew up in the 1990s when Anthea Turner instructed us all how to make a cut price version of Tracy Island. The biggest difference with the new Thunderbirds is that the Tracys are no longer puppets and instead are computer animated. I didn't have a big issue with this as I can understand the need to adapt to a new audience and on the whole I liked the way that the show was animated. What I didn't like was the way the story itself was structured as the Tracy brothers never got time for a proper rest in between their various missions. Although my memory of the original series is hazy I'm sure that not all of the episode was devoted to missions alone and I feel that the episode would've been improved if there had been a couple of scenes where the brothers were just relaxing. It appears to me that writer Rob Hoegee and director David Scott believe that 21st century children can't concentrate on a story for more than a couple of minutes and therefore decided that there had to be a new mission every two minutes. It also seems that the producers were worried that the characters in Thunderbirds weren't diverse enough hence the decision to turn Brains into an Asian scientist. The only involving piece of the plot came near the end when it was revealed that the Tracys' associate Kayo was actually the niece of evil mastermind The Hood. But this development came too late for me in what was essentially an hours' worth of loud music and constant action. It remains to be seen if Thunderbirds are Go does indeed resonate with the new generation but one episode was more than enough for this big kid to realise that revivals aren't always a good thing.

However, Saturday night's biggest TV show was over on BBC One, who devoted two hours to the final of this series of The Voice UK. I've personally been one of those people who've stuck up for The Voice UK and defended it against claims that it's boring and pointless. But even I have to admit that no real effort was made to differentiate the grand final from the other two live shows that have come before it. Say what you want about The X-Factor but Simon Cowell and company always go out of their way to make the final show feel special. Here the only different was the fact that Ricky Wilson was wearing a tuxedo and that every twenty minutes or so the hosts would present yet another recap of the programme. Of the four finalists, I felt that Sasha and Emmanuel would be the contestants who'd have the best shot of carving out long-lasting careers. So wouldn't you just know it that they were eliminated first leaving a two horse race between Irish opera diva Lucy and loveable Scottish fireman Stevie. As we've seen on Britain's Got Talent, mainstream opera singers often do well and I think that Lucy will at least have an album released around Mother's Day 2016. Unfortunately I think her chances were slightly scuppered by her duet with Will.i.am which was probably one of the worst things to happen to music ever. Whilst most acts feel it's a privilege to perform with their coaches, I think Lucy would've been better off on her own. Ultimately it was Stevie who triumphed with his version of 'Lost Stars' from the movie Begin Again being released on itunes the next day. I'm hoping that Stevie will be the first winner of The Voice UK to actually make the show prove its worth as a successful platform for budding superstars. At the same time I'm not holding my breath and I feel that Stevie will plummet into the same pit of obscurity as former winners Leanne, Andrea and Jermaine.

That's your lot for now and remember for more of my view on the week's TV follow me on Twitter @mattstvbites

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