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Sunday, 10 January 2016

Matt on the Box: Jericho, Endeavour, Beowulf, War and Peace and Deutschland '83

So we're one week into 2016 now and as always the TV has filled up with new and returning drama and as always yours truly has attempted to wade through this week's telly offerings and present you with the main highlights.


As is always the way with January, TV offered up a lot of the same returning dramas such as Midsomer Murders, Silent Witness and Death in Paradise. However, those wanting something a bit different from dramas about the police, doctors or lawyers were in luck thanks to ITV's Jericho. Set in the 1870s, the Jericho of the title is a shanty town that has been set up during the creation of a viaduct in Ribblehead, North Yorkshire. Although set in England, with its shanty town set which includes both a brothel and a drinking establishment, Jericho has much more in common with an old American western. Just like any good western, Jericho also welcomes several strangers during the opening episode all of whom soon make their mark on the town. One of these strangers is Annie Quaintain (Jessica Raine) who has travelled to Jericho to make a new life for her and her children following the death of her husband. On the train to Jericho, Annie meets the handsome Johnny Jackson (Hans Matheson) another newcomer who soon finds himself a job on the railway line. Annie herself quickly, and with surprisingly little hassle, ends up running a boarding house and takes Johnny on as one of her first two lodgers. Also arriving in Jericho at the same time as Annie and Johnny is veteran American railwayman Ralph Coates (Clark Peters) who soon ingratiates himself with some of the locals and later finds himself overseeing the construction following several deaths on the site. For an establishing episode Jericho did try to cram a lot in including three deaths all of which will impact the fates of the characters going forward. I personally enjoyed the majority of the stories that writer and creator Steve Thompson wove together during this opener. The one exception is the plot thread concerning Charles Blackwood (Daniel Rigby), the visionary behind the viaduct whose plan is quickly losing funding. As Blackwood lived away from Jericho he didn't interact with any of the other characters and as a result it made it hard to care about him and his predicament.


Aside from this though I liked almost everything about Jericho as it was a drama that looked and felt different. As somebody who has been watching and reviewing British television for almost a decade this was unlike anything I've ever seen before. One thing that set Jericho apart from any other costume drama was the epic production design with the titular shanty town almost becoming its own character. Although the impressive set is full is reminiscent of that of an American western, Jericho is still a very British show thanks to the broad Yorkshire accents that most of the cast employ. Of the cast I felt that Jessica Raine did a very good job at making us sympathise with what could have been a very unlikeable and prickly character. Even though I found it quite hard to believe that Raine's Annie could be a parent to a seventeen-year-old-daughter I think that she played the motherly role well and I found myself caring about the character's predicaments as the episode went on. After providing underwhelming support in the likes of London Spy and Partners in Crime it's great to see Clarke Peters be given a role that he can really get his teeth into. As the slightly untrustworthy Ralph Coates, Peters is perfect and I'm hoping he doesn't get lost in the ensemble as the drama continues. Elsewhere Hans Matheson is providing Poldark-like sex appeal and as Johnny as already got his top off a couple of times and teased the fact that he and Annie are almost certainly going to end up in bed together at some point. Whilst the cast, setting and storyline are all great the one element of Jericho that I wasn't a fan of was the overbearing score which sometimes distracted from the action on screen. Whilst I'm all for lively background music I think Jericho's soundtrack was a little too over the top and was trying too hard to provoke a reaction in the audience. But that aside I felt Jericho was a great attempt by ITV to do something different and in my opinion this risk more than paid off. I'm just hoping that the channel are going to stick with it despite the disappointing ratings that this opening instalment received.


Although I did have a little moan about returning crime drama in the introduction the new series of one procedural has got me more than a little bit excited. The crime drama in question is ITV's brilliant Endeavour, which ended on a monumental cliffhanger last series after the life of Fred Thursday (Roger Allam), the partner of the young Inspector Morse (Shaun Evans), was left hanging in the balance. I was more than a little disappointed then that this massive twist ending was almost swept under the carpet as all of the events of the last series were cleared away presumably so this new series could continue with a fresh start. However I did like that writer Russell Lewis did at least show how Endeavour was effected by the way he was treated by the police as we found him living an almost nomadic lifestyle in a small shack on the river. Oddly though, Endeavour's new ramshackle abode just happens to be next to a massive mansion owned by the enigmatic Joss Bixby (David Oakes). After feeling betrayed by his old colleagues, Endeavour is seemingly enchanted by the world Bixby operates in and it appears as if his cares are beginning to be lifted. Unfortunately it's not long before he comes in contact with his old colleagues after a bus conductress is murdered on the road by his new shack. Gradually Morse becomes wrapped up in the case and agrees to go back to work after having a rather sweet heart-to-heart with Thursday. Although the case itself becomes more far-fetched, especially when it starts to incorporate characters from a nearby circus and the exportation of Chinese heroin, Endeavour is a show that does get away with the slight dramatic license that it employs. I think part of the reason for this is that, despite the outlandish reveal of the murderer's identity, the motive for the death was rather believable and that's a testament to both Lewis' script and the performances given by the ensemble cast.


Talking of the cast I have to applaud Shaun Evans for one of the most naturalistic performances on TV as I never feel like I'm watching somebody act when I see him play Endeavour. In fact I do think that Evans' subtle turn as the emotionally damaged investigator is what makes the drama even more compelling especially in an episode in which we see him try to escape a world which he feels let him down. Evans also shares fantastic chemistry with Roger Allam which makes the scenes between Morse and Thursday great to watch and I particularly liked the first time they sat down to chat after the events of the last series. Just like Evans, Allam's portrayal of Thursday is incredibly to down-to-Earth to the extent that you utterly buy into him as the likeable detective. Another element of Endeavour that I'd like to praise is the episode's fantastic cinematography which made Oxford seem like an utterly enchanting place to live. Furthermore Lewis' script was perfectly paced and whilst the story was clever I never felt he was trying to outwit his audience in the same way that another crime drama writer tried to do last week. I do feel that Endeavour has something for everyone as it will appeal to the fans of sedate crime drama as well as people like me who enjoy the more modern techniques employed in the piece. Whilst it might seem quite old-fashioned at first viewing, there's something universal about Endeavour that puts it a cut above the likes of Death in Paradise and Midsomer Murders. In fact, with the visuals as impressive as they are, each episode of Endeavour feels like a mini-movie rather than just an episode of a TV series. The only thing that this episode really lacked was some sort of series-long story that will link all the four instalments together however that is just a very minor quibble. Overall, despite sweeping last series' cliffhanger under the carpet, Endeavour is back and still as good as it was before thanks to some fine performances, some great visuals and a fantastically paced script.

After recently announcing the cancellation of Jekyll and Hyde, earlier on Sunday evening ITV attempted to bring fantasy to weekend teatimes again this time with Beowulf: Return to The Shieldlands. Although it does share some similar traits with the medieval poem from which it takes its name, the series does little to adapt the original tale of Beowulf. Instead writer James Dornan has his eponymous hero (played by Kieran Bew) journey to the mythical land of Herot where he was once raised as the adopted son of the now late Thane Hrothgar (William Hurt). As soon as Beowulf arrives at the doors of Herot alongside his comedy Scandinavian accomplice Breca (Gisli Orn Gardarsson) everybody is trying to kill him. Beowulf's arrival is especially troubling for Hrothgar's weak son Slean (Ed Speelers) who has been passed over as king in favour of his much stronger mother Rheda (Joanne Whalley). The first episode attempts to add context to why the inhabitants of Herot hate Beowulf as much as they do and the flashback scenes do show us how much of a schemer Rheda is. But at the same time you do wonder why Beowulf would want to stay around and protect these people from the CGI beasties that lurk outside the walls especially as they keep trying to have him executed. Although a lot of the press notes describe Beowulf as a western it's clear that the producers are trying to make Game of Thrones-lite down to the fact that there are plenty of neighbouring kingdoms to Herot each of which has its own slightly suspicious leader. I have to say I wasn't taken with Beowulf and felt it was quite derivative of the other fantasy dramas that have recently populated our TV screens. Lead actor Kieran Bew never quite convinced me as the swaggering hero and therefore I did struggle to sympathise with his plight even throughout this opening episode. The story itself was similarly flimsy and the script was very basic containing not much wit or charm but instead featuring characters who spoke mainly in exposition. There were some highlights though most notably the visual scope of the piece and the construction of some impressive sets as well as some great exterior shots. Additionally there were some fine performances from the likes of Joanne Whalley and Gisli Orn Gardarsson the latter of whom tried to his best to inject some much needed humour into the piece. Ultimately though Beowulf to me came off as a mediocre Game of Thrones-lite and felt like an obvious attempt by ITV to flog a fantasy drama to various international markets.


Journeying away from ITV but staying on Sunday nights we have BBC One's first big dramatic offering of the year in the form of their lavish adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace. It's clear from watching the opening episode of War and Peace that the BBC have spared no expense when it comes to either the cast or the beautifully constructed sets. Both set and partially filmed in St. Petersburg, War and Peace follows the exploits of the socially inept but well-connected Pierre (Paul Dano), his friend the dashing war hero Andrei (James Norton) and their connections to the same pretty young socialite Natasha (Lily James). I felt that the opening scene did its best to introduce the majority of the characters and their relationships to each other however I have to admit I was still a bit lost by the end of episode one. Part of me felt that by condensing the epic novel into a six hour saga that Andrew Davies' adapted script was trying to rush through certain parts of the story to get to the more interesting parts. Whilst this definitely kept my attention I still felt that I would've been at more of an advantage had the pace of the episode been slightly slower. That being said I still think Davies did a good job at putting the three prominent younger characters front and centre and it's definitely clear that he's trying to modernise War and Peace in the same way he did Pride and Prejudice back in the 1990s. The adaptation does benefit from having a fine lead performance from the brilliant Paul Dano who brings a childish innocence to the naive Pierre who is constantly manipulated by those who are trying to get their hands on his fortune. Dano is one of those actors who can absolutely captivate when he's saying nothing at all and I felt that he was definitely the stand out member of the cast. Also worthy of praise is the delightful Lily James who gave Natasha a combination of likeable innocence and emotional intelligence. Conversely though I was a little disappointed by the performance given by James Norton who I felt was the weakest of the three leads as the dashing Prince Andrei. As is always the way with BBC costume drama War and Peace boasts an all-star supporting cast with great turns being given by the likes of Stephen Rea, Rebecca Front and Jim Broadbent. Although it all looks fantastic and is well-acted from start to finish I have to say that there was nothing about War and Peace that I found particularly captivating. I would go as far as to say that it might be one of this year's early dramas that I won't be sticking with primarily because there seems to be so much else on on Sunday nights.

Adding to that argument is the final show in this week's instalment as we head to Channel 4 for their new German cold war thriller Deutschland '83. Unsurprisingly set in 1983, the drama follows young East German border security guard Martin Raugh (Jonas Nay) as he undertakes a mission to spy on the West. Martin is originally recruited to go undercover by his aunt Lenora (Maria Schrader) who promises to put his mother, her sister, on a transplant list for a new kidney if he successfully completes his task. However it later transpires that Martin has little say in the matter as he is drugged and bundled across to West Germany having his finger broken in the process. Soon he is posing as Moritz Stamm, aide to West German General Edel (Ulrich Noethen) and has to pretend to be part of a society that he once despised. However his new role does allow him access to some sensitive documents and in possibly the episode's greatest set piece Martin is tasked with photographing some plans that a visiting American General has brought to Edel. Before it aired I was rather looking forward to Deutschland '83 especially as Channel 4 had given it quite a bit of promotion before it began. Therefore I was a little disappointed by the opening episode as I felt that the dialogue was overly expositional at times and the story was told in a rather heavy-handed fashion. Additionally I felt the 1980s setting was over-exposed at times especially when it came to both the production design and the use of music such as 'Blue Monday and '99 Luftballoons'. It's also hard not to compare Deutschland '83 to the superior The Americans which handles the same sort of material in a much more subtle way. At the same time there are hints that Deutschland '83 could be something special especially during the aforementioned set piece in Edel's office and a later couple of scenes during a barbecue at his house. Furthermore I felt the performance by Jonas Nay was astounding and even during the episode's duller moments his outstanding central turn kept me invested. Therefore I am going to persevere with Deutschland '83 to see if these initial problems can be ironed out as I do feel it has a promising premise and certainly could become quite a remarkable drama if the story was told in the right way.

That's your lot for now, remember to follow me on Twitter @mattstvbites and I'll see you next week for more of the same.



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