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Saturday, 13 January 2018

Matt on the Box: Next of Kin, Hard Sun, Wedding Day Winners, The Voice UK, Dancing on Ice and The Biggest Little Railway in the World

Welcome, to another weekly column this week covering the first full week of TV highlights for 2018 which appears to be mainly focused on the opening weekend of the year. Indeed, five of the six shows that I'm covering in this article aired on either Saturday or Sunday and showcase the eclectic mix of weekend programming that January has to offer.


But we start with the only show on the list not to air on the weekend with ITV's new six-part drama Next of Kin which is headlining Monday nights for the channel. Co-written and produced by Indian Summers creator Paul Rutman and his wife Natasha Narayan; Next of Kin focuses on Mona (Archie Panjabi); a London GP whose world is turned upside down on the day when her brother Kareem (Navin Chowdry) is meant to return to the UK after working in a clinic in their family's home country of Pakistan. The first half of the drama sees the introduction of Mona's family as they all arrive at her family's home to be welcomed by her political lobbyist husband Guy (Jack Davenport). Meanwhile, Mona calls Kareem only to discover that he may not be getting on his original flight from Pakistan due to a diversion on his way to the airport. The drama begins to get interesting when Mona's taxi journey home is disrupted when the London traffic grinds to a standstill and a dark cloud is seen billowing in the distance, which is later revealed as the result of a suspected terrorist incident. Whilst waiting for Kareem, Mona is informed that her brother has been kidnapped in Pakistan and gradually the family attempt to come to terms with this news. Mona then attempts to contact Kareem's teenage son Danish (Viveik Kalra) to tell him what's happened to his father but is unable to locate him at his university halls of residence. Whilst attempting to track down her nephew, Mona learns that the family haven't had much contact with him of late and that his running career was struck short due to an injury. The need to track down Danish only increases when a video surfaces of Kareem being executed, thankfully Mona's mother (Shabna Amzi) reveals that she has her grandson's new phone number. Although Danish does answer his phone, it's revealed that he's in Pakistan and not only knows about his father's murder but may have more of a hand in the act than any of the characters' believed.


Next of Kin was an odd viewing experience as initially I found it a promising drama before struggling with the second half of this opening episode. The standout moment for me was Justin Chadwick's direction during both the scenes in Pakistan and the one in which Mona views the clouds of smoke as she embarks from her taxi. Talking of Mona, Archie Panjabi's performance as the doctor was captivating throughout and I felt she made her character worthy of investment from the outset. Panjabi made Mona a worthy proxy for the audience as she learned what had happened to her brother and what may be going on with her nephew. However, part of the problem I had with the episode was that I felt I was a step ahead of the characters in discovering what was going on. For example, I was already aware of Kareem's kidnapping before the family were informed of it whilst I'd already guessed that Danish would turn out to be suspected of terrorism before the police began investigating him. In fact, the only shock was Kareem's execution as I believed that a recognisable actor like Navin Chowdry would feature in more than handful of scenes in the drama. Whilst not an awful drama, I felt that Mona's search for Danish occupied far too much of the episode and some of the scenes before she called him felt like filler. This is a shame as Rutman and Narayan's drama was an intriguing premise and in my opinion still has promise despite an uneven opener. Exploring a terrorist incident through the eyes of a multi-cultural family is a story that intrigues me and I'm hoping the pace of Next of Kin picks up as the series progresses. Judging by the preview of next week's episode it certainly seems like the drama steps up a gear as Mona goes to Pakistan, a move that I hope provides a lot more action than we saw here. Although I was disappointed by some of its opening episode, I'm going to stick with Next of Kin primarily due to the brilliant central performance from Panjabi but also because of the drama's promising premise.


BBC One's second new drama of the year debuted on Saturday night which felt like an odd place to put the new pre-apocalyptic thriller from Luther creator Neil Cross. Like Luther, Hard Sun focused on a no-nonsense good-looking macho cop who played by his own rules and in the case of DCI Charlie Hicks (Jim Sturgess) this included committing armed robbery. Charlie is also mourning the loss of his former policing partner with his grieving process including bedding his late colleague's widow Mari (Aisling Bea); despite having a wife and child at home himself. Charlie is paired with a new partner in the form of DI Elaine Renko (Agyness Deyn); who we meet as she is being left in a burning building by a young man who we later learn is her son. Charlie is instantly suspicious of Elaine and it appears as if this mistrust is warranted when we see she is in charge of a secret investigation into the death of his partner. Despite Charlie coming to her hotel to get to the truth, he isn't able to find her investigatory findings as she has hidden them in the ceiling of her hotel room. When they're not trying to expose each other's deepest secrets, Elaine and Charlie do actually solve some crimes starting with the murder of a lonely computer hacker. Through a chain of events, they discover that the hacker had obtained information relating to a secret government file entitled Hard Sun. After surviving an assassination attempt by MI5, our policing duo are able to explore the information for themselves and discover the truth; that the sun is going to destroy the Earth in five years. From there, it's a case of every copper for themselves as Charlie is convinced to give the flash drive back to MI5 after he learns his family may be in danger whilst Elaine wants to expose the truth. This leads to a very bonkers fight on a beach between the pair which involved a variety of weapons and both playing extremely dirty. Oddly, it appears that next week Elaine and Charlie will go back to working together despite almost killing each other at the end of this opener.


Hard Sun has all the elements that people loved about Luther including a barmy central premise, a moody filming style and lots of crazy violence. However, I felt that Neil Cross took quite a while to put all Hard Sun's pieces in place as the episode lurched from set piece to set piece. Both Elaine's near-death and Charlie's robbery of a dodgy accountant occurred with very little explanation and it was only when we got to the police station that things fell into place. The one positive that Luther has over Hard Sun is that it has a lead actor with so much charisma that he can make Cross's bonkers storylines work. Unfortunately, Jim Sturgess is no Idris Elba and instead made Charlie come across as an unlikeable philanderer who had little respect for anyone else save maybe his wife and daughter. Sturgess portrays Charlie as the stereotypical slightly dodgy copper and that sort of character doesn't work in the world Cross creates. Deyn fairs better in a role that is suspiciously similar to that of Kate in Line of Duty; the emotionally damaged undercover officer who throws herself into her work. She manages to make us sympathise with Elaine's bizarre family situation and the scene where she tries to connect with her son at a secure unit is the drama's most emotional moment. However, there is very little chemistry between the pair which makes it hard to care about the love-hate relationship that is central to the show. The central premise of Hard Sun is an intriguing one but one that is barely explored in an opening episode that is more concerned with introducing its lead characters. However, I feel Cross has done enough by simply showing us the reactions of several characters to hearing the news that they have five years left on Earth. Furthermore, I have faith in Cross to deliver a bonkers, violent drama that at least provides some element of fun in each episode. I'm definitely going to stick with the show for another episode to see if the central premise of Hard Sun begins to dominate the plot in the way it should. However, I wasn't as taken with Hard Sun as I thought I would've been primarily due to the lack of focus at the start of the episode as well as the underwhelming lead turn from Jim Sturgess.


The other new show on BBC One's Saturday night line-up couldn't be more different as the channel presented a new raucous game show in the form of Wedding Day Winners. In what may be a result of a random presenter generator; the show teams up toothy Essex comic Rob Beckett with everyone's favourite Scottish breakfast TV host Lorraine Kelly. This bizarre duo presided over a show which saw two couples compete to win a host of goodies and ultimately scoop the honeymoon of a lifetime. Teaming up with their families and other wedding guests, the couples competed over the course of the show before going head-to-head to not only win the aforementioned honeymoon but also the honour of being married just before Casualty comes on the telly. I'm not quite sure why couples Natasha and Dimiti and Lucy and Tristran agreed to take part on the show as most of the prizes didn't seem worth the humiliation that came with their participation on Wedding Day Winners. These prizes including the likes of an inflatable hot tub and a VIP circus night, things that you'd probably try to return if they were given as gifts at an actual wedding. Meanwhile the challenges were memorable of those from the Generation Game as family members were taught to dance by Anton Du Beke and later the couples had to construct a wedding cake with the added handicap of the grooms being blindfolded. One strange sequence saw comedian Tom Allen take two of Natasha and Dimitri's guests to Italy and partake in a zip-wire challenge with them to win a host of prizes for the newlyweds. Suffice to say Wedding Day Winners was a complete disaster and didn't quite make it into the so-bad-its-good territory of Saturday night entertainment. I'm not quite sure why Rob Beckett was involved here as he didn't appear to have much chemistry with Lorraine or with any of the members of the wedding parties whom he was tasked with interviewing. The challenges were a random selection of game show clich├ęs  most of which only had a tangential relation to wedding day customs. Furthermore, the show was padded out with VTs from the wedding parties explaining why the couples were perfect for each other and giving memories of their own weddings days. Ultimately, I didn't feel like a winner for watching Lucy and Tritran's wedding day and I'm hoping this show is soon confined to the scrap heap of  recent BBC Saturday night game shows such as Prized Apart and The Getaway Car.


Meanwhile, ITV kicked their weekend of entertainment off with the return of The Voice UK for its second run since its move from the BBC. The one big change this year is the addition of Olly Murs to the line-up replacing Bush frontman and charisma vacuum Gavin Rosdale. To be fair to Murs he's at least a little more interesting than his predecessor and appears to want to make a good impression with his three fellow coaches. But occasionally he felt like a bit of a rabbit in the headlights, unsure of how to act alongside his more famous panellists and how to successfully pitch to the acts he wanted on his team. Somehow, Olly did secure two acts in this first show in the form of warbler Lauren Bannon and loved-up duo Ryt; who performed a folksy version of the oft-forgotten JCB Song. My favourite act of the night was Chloe Jones; a Warrington coffee shop employee who impressed with her rendition of Corrine Bailey Rae's Like a Star and earned a place on Tom Jones' team. I was genuinely concerned about Tom throughout the show as he seemed to be in pain and struggled to even stand-up to give Chloe a hug following her decision to join his team. As ever, the coaches' favourite act of the night ended the show and that honour fell to sixteen-year-old superstar-in-the-making Donel Mangena whose version of 'Cold Water' compelled all four judges to spin their chairs round. Donel became the first member of Will.i.am's team after an animated pitch from the only coach who has been on every series of The Voice UK. However, it was Jennifer Hudson who made sure the spotlight was firmly placed on her throughout the duration of the show. In fact, J-Hud performed four times during the show including an impromptu Aretha Franklin duet with Tom and a bizarre moment that saw her hand a collection plate round the audience like she was in church rather than the Media City Studios in Salford. Ultimately, I was underwhelmed by this opening episode of The Voice, primarily as I didn't feel the talent was as strong as it has been in previous years. Despite issues with the format over the years, I've always had a soft spot for The Voice however I'm not sure, based on the evidence in this opener, that I'm going to stick with the show if it continues to be as dull as it was on Saturday night. I may though give it one more chance just to see if the talent pool improves as the show progresses however it's currently in danger of devolving into the Jennifer Hudson show.


ITV's big weekend continued into Sunday with the revival of Dancing on Ice; a show that has been brought back after four years away. I've never been that bothered about Dancing on Ice however some are glad of the comeback and the fact that the original hosting team of Philip Schofield and Holly Willoughby are back at the helm. One of the biggest changes to this series is the way Torvill and Dean's jobs have shifted from coaches to judges, sitting on a panel that also includes the stereotypical 'nasty one' Jason Gardiner and loveable Diversity star Ashley Banjo. It's clear why Torvill and Dean never sat on the judging panel previously as they're not exactly the most charismatic pair and in fact the judges' comments were generally quite inane. Sunday's episode felt very long as only six of the twelve celebrity novices took to the ice with their professional skating partners and what a motley crew it was. Soap stars Stephanie Waring and Anthony Cotton were on the ice alongside reality TV veterans such as Kem from Love Island, Candice from the Bake-Off and Jake Quickenden. I feel my problem with Dancing on Ice is that there is very little variety in the dances and, despite changes in costume and music, essentially every performance is essentially the professional trying to make sure their celeb doesn't do themselves a painful injury. It just feels a bit of a poor relation to the much superior Strictly down to the filming style, location and the fact that the duos dance to a CD rather than any live musicians. Another issue I had was that the public vote lasted just five minutes and the result was that Candice found herself in a skate-off against the lowest scoring celeb from next week's show. One surreal aspect of the show was that the skaters who weren't currently competing were being kept in sort of an icy paddock backstage where they were sporadically interviewed by Ashley's brother Jordan Banjo in an interesting bit of nepotistic casting. I think those who are glad to have Dancing on Ice back are those who had a nostalgic attachment to the original run unfortunately I'm not one of those people. Even though I watched the show on catch-up, I found the whole experience rather dull and I won't be tuning in next week to see who ends up in the bottom two alongside the woman who won the Bake-Off two years' ago.


Despite the hype surrounding the return of Dancing on Ice, my favourite show on Sunday came in the form of a Channel 4 curio The Biggest Little Railway in the World. Fronted by Dick Strawbridge, the show saw a group of volunteers attempt to do what Victorian train engineers couldn't accomplish by building a railway line across Scotland's Great Glen Way. The twist in the tale here is that Strawbridge and his group of 21st century navvies are constructing a model railway for an engine called the Silver Lady to journey across. This first episode focused primarily on Strawbridge putting his team together calling on numerous model railway enthusiasts and coaxing them out of their garages for a two-week jaunt in Scotland. Joining the hobbyists were people who worked on actual railways as well as fully-qualified engineers who quickly had to bond as they had to camp along the route the Silver Lady was embarking on; starting in Fort William and ending in Inverness. As the laying of the track began, the big issue that the group had to tackle was successfully getting the Silver Lady across the Caledonian Canal by crafting a model ferry and constructing a tiny bridge. This being a TV show, there were a few minor clashes between the teammates but as the day wore on they learnt to put their differences behind them and work together. The reason I enjoyed the show was that it celebrates the eccentricities of the British and showed how people can come together successfully to complete a shared goal. Although I found the historical segments a bit of a bore to sit through, they were necessary for Strawbridge to link his project back to the original Victorian plans for the Scottish railway. My favourite parts of the show were getting to know the four volunteers that Strawbridge made team leaders; all of whom had a background in constructing model railways. It's these sorts of people who I feel should be celebrated more on TV and a lot of them wouldn't feel out of place as supporting players on Mackenzie Crook's brilliant Detectorists. After the first episode I'm already invested in the Silver Lady's journey and although I'm sure the team will be tested along the way I've got my fingers crossed that the project will ultimately prove to be successful.

If you'd like to read more of my thoughts on this week's TV, please check out my review of new Channel 4 drama Kiri which is also up on the site. Thanks for reading once again and I'll see you soon for more views on the week in TV.

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