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Friday, 18 March 2016

Matt on the Box: Happy Valley, Trapped, Houdini and Doyle and You're Back in the Room

As always on Matt on the Box I'm here to look back at the various TV highlights that have been on offer over the last seven days. But for me this week there was only one major highlight in the form of a finale of a series that we here at the site are just in love with.


I'm talking of course about Happy Valley, which concluded its second series this week in an episode which was able to wrap up almost every individual plot thread that had been set up during this year's run. Saying that the series' biggest mystery was essentially solved in the penultimate instalment as simple farmboy Daryl admitted that it was he who had murdered the four prostitutes in the Calder Valley. It takes some guts for any series to solve its biggest mystery before its finale but for me Sally Wainwright has always focused on characters first rather than big shocks. Therefore this final episode followed the emotional aftermath of Daryl's mother Alison (Susan Lynch) attempting to take her own life after killing her son. At the same time the final episode also saw Catherine (Sarah Lancashire) discover the truth about Frances Drummond (Shirley Henderson) and specifically how she was able to get access to her grandson Ryan (Rhys Connah). I've been a bit sceptical about this plot primarily as it seemed to be a way of keeping Tommy Lee Royce around despite him being surplus to proceedings. However the rather calm confrontation between Catherine and Frances was expertly handled and demonstrated that the story was more about Ryan than it was his murderous father. Finally we saw John Wandsworth (Kevin Doyle) face up to what he had done as the police put out a new appeal for information about the death of his murder victim Vicky Fleming. Thanks to new information put forward by her sister's boyfriend Neil (Con O'Neill), Catherine was able to piece together the information and realise what had happened with John. The scene in which Catherine attempts to talk John down from committing suicide perfectly exemplified everything Happy Valley does so well. There was some emotional moments concerning what John's children would think combined with a lot of black comedy as the detective chastised Catherine for her awful negotiation skills. Ultimately this story was never going to end well but for a plot thread that I didn't have particularly high hopes for I was surprised by the rather touching way it ended.


But all roads led back to Catherine with both Sarah Lancashire and Sally Wainwright giving their all to make the character one of TV's greatest heroines. I'd personally liked the sense of symmetry that this series contained as it began and ended with a scene in which Catherine and sister Claire (Siobhan Finneran) discussed Daryl and Alison in some way. The second conversation was much darker and managed to link in both the main serial killer plot of the series with the darkness that surrounded Ryan due to his father being a convicted murderer. The sense of dread that was painted on Sarah Lancashire's face during the final scene was brilliant and made me think that this might not be the end for Happy Valley. In my opinion there's still a lot to explore with the Harrogate Mafia who were controlling the slave trade in the Calder Valley and may still have it out for Catherine and her elderly neighbour. There's also more avenues to go down with the Cawood family especially in terms of whether Ryan will turn out like his father and what will happen next with Claire and Neil. But at the same time I almost don't want there to be another series of Happy Valley as the last two have been so perfect. It's great to see a well-written TV show that people gravitate towards and the high ratings will probably convince BBC One to give Happy Valley another series. However I do feel it should be Sally Wainright's decision if she thinks she can get more from her characters than she already has done. I could personally praise Wainwright till I'm blue in the face but I think every piece of dialogue has a note of truth to it and the story itself never runs out of steam. I'm personally a fan of the smaller scenes which are character-led for example the ones in which Catherine and desk sergeant Joyce went out on the town. This series' cast has been fantastic with special mention going to Kevin Doyle for painting John Wandsworth in such a sympathetic light to the extend we almost felt sorry for a murderer. There's also been some fantastic support from the likes of Con O'Neil and the always fabulous Siobhan Finneran the latter of whom has excelled this year as Claire. But Happy Valley will always be Sarah Lancashire's show as she so fantastic at getting every facet of Catherine's character spot on. If this is the end for Happy Valley then it will go down as one of the best British dramas of the 21st century and if it's not then I look forward to whatever Wainwright has to offer us in the third series.


Also coming to an end this week was the brilliant Icelandic drama Trapped which has been airing on BBC Four over the past five Saturdays. The drama initially began with the discovery of a dismembered body in a remote town in Eastern Iceland at the same time as a ferry had docked into its port. Believing the killer to potentially be one of the people on the ferry, Police Chief Andri made sure the ferry docked in the town and that all of the passengers stayed put. In my opinion the series has become more compelling since it went on as we've seen an avalanche and the town's mayor Hrafn burnt alive in his own shed. Both murders were solved in the final double bill that aired this Saturday as Andri firstly discovered that Eirkur, the father of his ex-wife, was responsible for the mayor's murder after learning that Hrafn was indirectly responsible for the fire that took the life of his youngest daughter. The man who started that fire was the murder victim himself Geirmundur whose death was finally solved when it became clear that he was the father of Maggi, the grandson of one of the town's most prominent residents fish factory owner Leifur. It eventually transpired that Geirmundur returned to surprise Maggi and instead wound up being confronted by his mother Maria who eventually killed him in revenge for the raping her year's previously. The body was then disposed off by the town's most powerful men including Hrafn, Leifur and hotel owner Guoni who himself was also caught up with people trafficking. What I liked about the revelations in the final episode of Trapped was that both murders were essentially motivated by getting revenge for things that happened years earlier. Both murderers were actually some of the series' more sympathetic characters however both were linked by the town's dodgier residents all of whom were supposedly respected. Additionally clever was the way in which creator Baltasar Kormákur linked the fire to Iceland's financial worries in 2008 and how the insurance money from the incident allowed these men to control the town.


The title of the drama also had several meanings with it initially referring to the fact that the people in the town and the passengers of the ferry were essentially trapped inside their surroundings with a killer on the loose. But later it became more about how the town was trapped by its many secrets most notably around what actually happened on the day of the fire in 2008. Cleverly Andri was presented as an outsider for the most part having not been in the town too long after leaving his post in Reykjavik under a cloud. Andri's status as an outsider gave him a different perspective on the events that occurred in the town prior to his arrival therefore allowing him to be as impartial as he possibly could. Just like Catherine in Happy Valley, Andri was a completely sympathetic character throughout and you felt for him when his ex-wife waltzed back into town to take his daughters away from him. The most heartbreaking moment of this double bill came when Andri had to inform his ex-wife's family of Eirukur's arrest, a scene that was initially played out in silence. It was this humanistic aspect that gave Trapped the edge over other crime dramas as you cared deeply about Andri as well as his diminutive deputy Hinrika. Trapped also included some clever little touches that not everybody would've caught but ones that I personally appreciated. My favourite had to be the fact that Geirmundur was bringing Maggi a red fire truck for his birthday after having started a fire seven years previously. One element of Trapped which drew me in the first place was its style and sense of place, especially in the snowy earlier episodes when I felt so cold I wanted to wrap myself in a blanket. The image of this small town shrouded in secrets was presented with a cloud over it throughout giving it an eerie aspect similar to that of Twin Peaks. Further praise must be heaped on Oscar-nominated composer Jóhann Jóhannsson for his fantastically jarring score and theme tune both of which enhanced the mood of the piece. Overall I feel that Trapped is definitely one of this year's most gripping dramas which had a great sense of style and a compelling storyline. I'm wondering now if Andri and his team could return for a second series at some point because I for one would love to see what happened to these brilliantly crafted characters next.


Whilst two gripping dramas left our screens this week's prominent debuting series almost went completely unnoticed as ITV's Houdini and Doyle was victim of some very odd scheduling. Initially conceived as a project for the channel's pay-only platform ITV Encore, this Victorian crime-solving saga was giving a simulcast airing on Sunday night at 10:15. Whilst the simulcast wasn't a bad idea in and of itself the time it was on meant that most people would have already switched off the telly and endeavouring to get to be before the working week begun. Oddly this would've probably been preferable to actually sticking around to watch Houdini and Doyle, a crime drama that borrows from a lot of other areas while having very few ideas of its own. From the style of the opening credits alone I could tell that Houdini and Doyle had aspirations of being the new Ripper Street with its dirty London surroundings suggesting that it saw itself in the same league as the gritty period crime drama. Unfortunately Houdini and Doyle isn't as rough around the edges as that drama despite it featuring several seemingly grizzly murders. The conceit of David Hoselton's drama surrounds the real life friendship of illusionist Harry Houdini and author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle albeit an alternate reality in which they formed a crime solving partnership. Houdini (played by House actor Michael Weston) doesn't believe in the supernatural and feels that every mystery has a solution in reality. Meanwhile Doyle (Stephen Magnan) has faith in other powers and doesn't understand why Houdini is a sceptical as he is. These two ideas clash when the pair read the story of a nun who was seemingly murdered in her convent by the ghost of a young girl who died whilst staying in her care. Although Doyle believes the ghost story, Houdini doesn't and this leads to the pair placing a wager on the outcome of the investigation. As Chief Superintendent Merring (Tim McInnerny) believes that these two famous fellows aren't going to get anywhere he assigns a liaison to them in the form of beautiful detective Adelaide Stratton (Rebecca Liddiard) whose place in the police force is treated with a large amount of sexism. Predictably she is able to prove everybody wrong and even saves the great Houdini from a watery grave in a scene that first aired at the start of the episode in an attempt to draw viewers in.


Unfortunately this opening scene had the alternate effect on me as I got the impression that this would be as good as it got and I wasn't wrong. The whole central mystery concerning the dead nuns really smacked of something that Jonathan Creek would be able to solve in his sleep especially seeing as it involved a locked door. However it took the creator of Sherlock Holmes and the world's greatest magician at least forty minutes to do the same thing and in my opinion it was one of the most underwhelming reveals of all time. As well as having elements of Ripper Street and Creek, Houdini and Doyle is also reminiscent of BBC One's recent Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Both were period pieces based around magic however Jonathan Strange at least had characters you cared about and some genuinely dramatic intrigue. Here I don't think Hostleton gave us any reason to care about Doyle and Houdini as we got very little insight into their personal lives. It was nice to see that Houdini cared about his mum and that Doyle believed in the supernatural due to his ill wife but neither of these themes were focused on for too long. Meanwhile I found the character of Adelaide Stratton to be borderline insulting with everybody being surprised that a woman could actually be a police officer in the first place. Stratton's final scene opposite Merring was so insulting that I would've refused to watch Houdini and Doyle just on principal even if I had enjoyed what had come before. But there was very little to enjoy aside from the strong production design but then again I've seen the Victorian streets recreated in much better dramas than this. The only other positive I can give to the drama is that both Weston and Mangan give spirited turns and have great chemistry with another. Mangan is particularly strong as Doyle and I believe does a better job at portraying the novelist than Martin Clunes did last year in another forgettable ITV crime drama Arthur and George. Ultimately Houdini and Doyle is a drama that I can't see many people sticking with let alone purchasing ITV Encore on the strength of this simulcast episode. It's a shame as I think both Weston and Mangan deserve better but I personally think there was very little merit in this sub par Victorian crime drama.


Oddly Houdini and Doyle wasn't the worst decision ITV made this week that honour went to the return of one of the channel's worst programmes in recent memory You're Back in the Room. For those of you lucky enough to miss the so-called entertainment show the first time around the basic premise is that five members of the public attempt to win a large amount of money whilst being put under hypnosis. While it sounds like a sound enough idea for a small segment on a show such as Saturday Night Takeaway, rolling out to an hour was a mistake on its own. Host Philip Schofield doesn't help matters by basically failing to keep a straight face during each challenge and basically having a lot of fun at the contestants' expense. Unfortunately Schofield forgets that his main job as the host is to keep up as at home entertained but rather it seems that only he, the studio audience and hypnotist Keith Barry are in on the joke. Barry himself is an odd character who has tried to build his role in the series to more than that of a lackey who gives the contestants zany things to do before each challenge. Furthermore it appears as if Barry has been told to involve Schofield more in the game meaning that he got the contestants do to a number of things to the host including writing him love letters and giving him the kiss of life. The reason for Barry's involvement is to hinder the contestants in their various challenges, five in total, so they win as little money as possible. But the fact they came away from the game with fifteen thousand pounds suggests to me that he didn't do his job very well. Instead the hypnosis is just a silly little gimmick to add on to what is basically just a bog-standard Saturday night game show and not a good one at that. This series seems intent on being more low-rent than its predecessor which was exemplified in a challenge which saw the contestants administer beauty treatments to the 'stars' of Loose Women. There's nothing of merit I can say about You're Back in the Room which is the complete antithesis to Ant and Dec's brilliant show which airs before it. Whilst the Geordie duo keep their audience engaged throughout, Philip and Keith seem intent on making us at home as drowsy as the contestants are pre-challenge. I'm just hoping that Keith stays away from the ITV executives as I'm sure hypnosis is the only way that this rubbish got recommissioned in the first place.

That's your lot for now remember to follow me on Twitter @mattstvbites and I'll see you next time.

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