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Sunday, 2 October 2016

Matt on the Box: Strictly Come Dancing, The X-Factor, The Level, Ambulance and Morgan Robinson's The Agency

Welcome back to the first Matt on the Box of this autumn, a season I know is on the horizon whenever we get the first proper episode of Strictly Come Dancing.


After we got the obligatory launch show earlier this month, this weekend we were treated to a double bill of dance action as the fifteen brave celebrities took to the floor for the first time. Friday night's show was a rather random affair and with only six of the contestants taking part it almost felt like a warm-up show. Of the six, only Lesley Joseph was one of the big names that people like me really wanted to see with other names such as Ore Oduba, Laura Whitmore and Naga Munchetty not really being big draws. The only highlight that the Friday show really provided was a lively cha-cha danced by ITV daytime stalwart 'Judge' Robert Rinder whose facial expressions were the big talking point of the day. The other thing about Friday's show was that there were no real dances that blew me away and the judges obviously felt the same scoring all six contestants between 23 and 27 points. It was only on Saturday's show that I felt that Strictly was back in business and this was established early on with a fantastic dance number featuring both the professionals and members of the public. Some of the early favourites proved the bookies right with the likes of Louise Redknapp and Will Young touching the top end of the leader board. However it was model Daisy Lowe who had the best night, topping the leaderboard after a touching waltz that was dedicated to her grandfather who died very recently. Obviously all eyes were on former shadow chancellor Ed Balls and unfortunately his waltz landed him at the bottom of the leaderboard with the politician claiming he performed it much better in rehearsal. I personally thought that, as somebody who isn't a natural born performer, Ed did a good job especially considering there was a lot of criticism of him taking part in the show to begin with. I believe what makes Strictly is that at its heart it's a fun show that is full of colour which in turn provides an alternative to the dark skies that loom large over the autumn months. It's great to see all the celebrities improve as the show goes on and I feel that it's a rare example of a programme where the audience has as much fun as the people taking part seem to possess.


Unfortunately fun isn't something that The X-Factor particularly provided this past weekend as we moved to the dreaded six chair challenge. Unsurprisingly the show didn't do as well in the ratings as its BBC rival and I'm sure will drop even further when the two go head-to-head this weekend. Whereas Strictly provides a lot of fun and entertainment, Simon Cowell's insistence that The X-Factor is still a serious music competition meant that there was a lot of passionate speeches about how much getting to judges' houses meant to the final contestants. Saturday's show had a particularly serious tone with the girls and boys both singing their hearts out for Simon and Nicole respectively. To turn up the drama the contestants were asked to perform in front of a rabid crowd most of whom wanted them to be eliminated just as they progressed in the contest. The oddest part of the show came when Nicole asked two of the boys, who'd form quite a partnership, to compete in a sing-off only to give them both a seat and a spot on this week's judges' homes. Things got even more ridiculous on Sunday when their were several shock departures in Sharon's over category not least novelty contestant Honey G who was given the boot despite the protestations of the audience. However Honey was brought back after the incredibly talented Ivy was denied a visa in order to perform at Sharon's American abode. The ludicrous nature of the show reached fever pitch when Louis Walsh had another breakdown, not knowing who to give a seat to and having his fellow judges make most of the decisions for him. I felt particularly sorry for girl group Girl Next Door, who were ejected from their seat twice within about five minutes despite being one of the more talented acts in their category. Whilst I know Simon brought Louis back to the show for reasons like this it was clear that the Irish manager was incredibly overwhelmed during the challenge. Another thing I noticed throughout the weekend was the way in which almost every contestant oversang and quite a few of the girls literally shouted the way through some of the lyrics. I feel that a lot of the contestants do this as that's what they interpret as good singing however I personally prefer a more measured performance that a lot of the contestants didn't bring. Despite a lot of issues I had, I will admit that the talent level on this year's show is a lot higher than it was last time round and I'm just hoping that all the judges make the right decisions this weekend.


I have to say at this point I'm watching both Strictly and The X-Factor out of habit and have been with both shows through the good and the bad. However I think I look forward to Strictly a lot more at this stage due to the aforementioned sense of fun. Strictly is also a programme in which the contestants want each other to succeed and there's a sense of everybody being a team player which I quite appreciate. The X-Factor on the other hand is a show that I just watch to keep up with and I must admit to fast forwarding through a number of auditions of contestants I don't really care about. Although the fun level has been increased due to the line-up of judges, now we've got down to the six chair challenge, the seriousness has increased once again. I was under the belief that The X-Factor should have finished several years ago and we still have no end in sight thanks to ITV committing to the show for another three years. I'm not actually sure what Cowell or ITV could do to attract new viewers to The X-Factor as the appeal to see amateurs become superstars isn't as high as it was several years ago. Conversely seeing there's a feel good factor to Strictly as you either see the celebrities improve or see them put a brave face on things when they realise they are this year's novelty acts. Maybe I'm wrong and The X-Factor ratings will climb after the live shows, however I'm fully expecting Strictly to crush them in the ratings each week until we get to Christmas. That being said I'll be watching both shows every weekend this autumn and I don't think I'm going to be the only one doing that.


I've previously written about the return of BBC Two's The Fall this week but that wasn't the only new crime drama on TV this week as ITV brought us The Level. Unlike their other new police procedural Paranoid, The Level at least has a sympathetic lead character in the form of DCI Nancy Devlin (Karla Crome) and I felt that she was introduced into the drama. Initially we learned that Nancy was an exemplary copper and had stepped in to save a colleague (Robert-James Collier) who had been threatened at gunpoint. But at the same time Nancy led a double life as she was secretly aiding dodgy haulage boss Frank LeSaux (Philip Glenister) and making sure that she'd make his name disappear from every police report he popped up on. As Glenister was promoted as one of the leads in The Level I was absolutely shocked that Frank was murdered during his first appearance in the drama as a mysterious assailant shot him dead as well as shooting Nancy, leaving her dealing with a bullet wound for the rest of the drama. Nancy was soon dispatched to her hometown of Brighton where she was once friends with Frank's daughter Hayley (Laura Haddock) before the latter entered rehab. Nancy is soon confronted by her former life and in particular has a meeting with her estranged alcoholic father (Gary Lewis) who asks her to move back into his house. She is also paired with a new colleague (Noel Clarke) who seems to have an issue with Nancy either because of her associations with the LeSaux family or because of her past in the crime squad. Soon it becomes clear that someone is aware of Nancy's involvement with Frank after they obtain CCTV footage of her buying painkillers from a pharmacy shortly after the shooting. Whether the person who knows about Nancy is a character we've already met remains to be seen but The Level already has me intrigued enough to stay with it. Unlike Paranoid, there's a lot to like about The Level from the shocking way in which Frank was killed early on to the exploration of Nancy's relationships with both her father and the haulage boss. However the main attraction of The Level is the presence of Karla Crome who is absolutely excellent in the role of Nancy and her performance makes you guess the motivations of her character in almost every scene. Furthermore I found the script from Gaby Chiappe and Alex Perrin to be well-paced and my attention never waned during the hour that The Level was on. Whilst The Level is far from perfect I felt it to be an engaging crime drama with a fantastic central turn from Crome and one that poses enough questions to make me tune in to at least the next episode to find out what happens next.


Real life drama was on the menu courtesy of BBC One's latest prime time documentary Ambulance which looked at the snap decisions that London paramedics had to make in order to prioritise the cases that their crews dealt with. I personally felt that the best parts of Ambulance were when the action was contained to the control centre where the staff were inundated with calls from those of minor importance to those which required the paramedics on the scene as soon as possible. I feel each individual case was well illustrated thanks to a computer map of London with animated arrows pointing to where each of the calls were coming from. Alongside these arrows we were given the details of each case from cardiac arrests and car accidents to shootings and suicides. Unlike Channel 4's medical documentary 24 Hours A&E, a lot of the stories in Ambulance didn't have a particularly happy ending and one of the things the crews talked about was how much death they saw on a daily basis. The documentary set its cards on the table early on when the crews were forced to declare a man dead after forty minutes of attempting to resuscitate him. The most compelling character for me in this first episode was Dan, a tattooed no-nonsense paramedic who talked about not being as cool and calm in a crisis as he first appeared to be. One of Dan's most memorable cases saw him attempt to deal with a man who'd overdosed on drugs and instead of being grateful for the paramedics' help actually insulted them for cutting off his clothes. This to me was the stark realisation that not everybody wants the help that's provided to them and would instead walk away without thanking the people who saved their lives. Although at times the action in Ambulance did stall, for the most part I found the documentary to be incredibly adrenaline-packed especially when the crews quickly had to get to the scene of a fire. Thankfully there were a couple of  heart-warming stories tucked into Ambulance most notably an Iranian-born woman who was worried that her ex-husband, who she'd lived with for many decades, was going to die. The chat between this woman and one of the paramedics made you grateful for the service that the ambulance service provide even if they aren't equipped enough to deal with every call straight away. Ultimately I feel that Ambulance is a documentary that is well-made and features plenty of characters that you can relate to it's just a shame that there's only two more instalments of the series to go.


We end this week on a lighter note with a bit of comedy in the form of Morgana Robinson's The Agency in which the impressionist imagines that all of the celebrities that she mimics are represented by the same agent. The agent in question is Vincent Mann (Calvin Clerkin) who runs the wittily titled Mann Management and looks constantly exasperated by his client base. Those of us who'd watched Robinson's previous shows such as The Morgana Show and Very Important People will recognise the majority of the impressions here with Fearne Cotton, Adele and Cheryl being some of Vincent's many clients. However the main focus of the first episode of this mockumentary focused primarily on Eastenders actress Natalie Cassidy as she prepared for the National Television Awards. I felt Morgana did well in crafting a story for the put-upon Cassidy who tried her best to look after her family whilst at the same time being a famous soap actress. Robinson's performance presented the fictional Cassidy in an incredibly sympathetic light and I felt she was also able to impersonate her mannerisms perfectly. The same can't be said for Robinson's impression of Danny Dyer which certainly wasn't nearly as nuanced and instead involved her shouting in a cockney accent. The story in which Dyer also tried to become a children's author wasn't that amusing and most of the gags were pretty obvious. It didn't help that Robinson's Danny Dyer sounded incredibly similar to her Gregg Wallace and if she wasn't made up to look like each of them then I think you'd struggle to spot the difference. The other prominent storyline in this first episode saw Vincent try to secure some stage work for Miranda Hart to broaden her range. Unfortunately Miranda couldn't deal with the Pinter material without launching into her comedy routine, irritating both the director and her co-stars in the process. Whilst I found Robinson's Miranda impression to be quite impressive, the story itself was quite obvious and as an audience member I knew exactly where it was going. Overall I found The Agency to be incredibly hit-and-miss and if hadn't been for the well-imagined Natalie Cassidy segments I may not have made it through the entire episode. Although I do feel Robinson is a talented impressionist, I don't think The Agency works as well as it should and as there's six more episodes to go I can't see myself sticking around for any more.

That's your lot for now, remember to follow me on Twitter @mattstvbites and I'll be back soon.

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