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Sunday, 19 October 2014

Matt on the Box: The Great Fire, Waterloo Road, Give Out Girls and Not Going Out

Hello folks and welcome back to another look at what last week's TV had to offer us.

In my last Matt on the Box I was complaining about the over-abundance of crime drama on ITV, citing Lewis and Grantchester as examples. I suppose I should be grateful then that the channel gave something other than crime drama with its latest series, The Great Fire. That being said, this historical chronicle of the famous 1666 blaze took its time to get going and for the most part featured characters conversing in plot-filled speeches. The screenplay for The Great Fire, written by ITV's political editor Tom Bradby, concentrated on four characters who were all affected by the blaze in different ways. Thomas Farriner (Andrew Buchan) is the man in whose bakery the fire emanated but in this first instalment he's presented as a worthy widower who just wants to make everyone happy. The failure of his naval clients to pay him the money he owes brings him into contact with Samuel Pepys (Daniel Mays); the Navy official who tells him that there is no money to give him. However Pepys, whose diary later became synonymous with the fire, isn't presented as a particularly compassionate man and he's mainly interested in getting his end away. Pepys is also the only person who is willing to tell King Charles II (Jack Huston) the truth about how he's bankrupting the country in order to live in luxury. This discrepancy between the rich and the poor is one of The Great Fire's most interesting themes as we see Farriner struggling to stay afloat whilst Charles is constantly throwing ostentatious events for the people of his court. The fourth primary protagonist in the drama is Sarah (Rose Leslie); the wife of Thomas's missing brother who finds herself the pawn in a devious game played between two noblemen. Although it is suggested that Thomas and Sarah are destined to be together, the final scene of the drama saw the latter being taken away from the rest of her family.

For the first thirty minutes of The Great Fire I was waiting for the titular blaze to begin. I think that if you name your drama after a certain event the audience expect to see it sooner rather than later. Instead Bradby kept us hanging on as he filled his drama with plenty of needless historical context and tedious conversations between characters. Whilst I understand that character development is crucial for us to care about Thomas and his family; I just found some of the sequences in The Great fire to be overly-laborious. What saved the drama for me was its final fifteen minutes as the fire began to sweep through Thomas's bakery, endangering the lives of his daughters in the process. The sequence in which Thomas attempted to get his oldest daughter to join him on the roof of a neighbouring building was a brilliantly nail-biting set piece. From there on, The Great Fire just went from strength to strength as the flames began to burn and Thomas and his neighbours attempted to quell the flames. Praise must go to production designer Douglas Hyman whose recreation of 17th century London is absolutely superb. The use of real flames also helped add a certain authenticity to the drama as did the brilliantly-tailored period costumes designed by Sheena Napier. The solid ensemble cast of The Great Fire did their best to make us care about their characters and some just about succeeded. As he often is, Andrew Buchan proved to be a reliable presence in the role of kindly Thomas Fariner while Rose Leslie was perfectly fine as his sympathetic sister-in-law. Although I'm a fan of Daniel Mays, I didn't think he was the right fit for Pepys and I don't feel that Bradby did him any favours with his presentation of the diarist.  Elsewhere Jack Huston was convincing enough as the haughty King Charles and Charles Dance gave another scene-chewing turn as his intelligence officer Lord Denton. Ultimately, although it took a while to get going, The Great Fire did show some promise thanks to some brilliant visual set pieces and a talented cast who I'm sure will impress as the blaze starts to spread across the rest of London.

After coming up with every plot imaginable, including moving the school to Scotland, BBC One's long-running drama Waterloo Road returned this week for its tenth and final series. Despite the series coming to an end in a mere twenty episodes' time, the producers still felt it was right to introduce a new head in the charismatic Vaughan Fitzgerald (Neil Pearson). Like every Waterloo Road headteacher before him Vaughan believes that his new position will be a fresh start for him and his girlfriend Allie (Nicola Stephenson), who just happens to be the school's new art teacher. But his dreams of bliss are soon ruined when his two sons are dumped on his doorstep and later forced to play happy families with Allie's children. Although he already has his domestic dramas to worry about, Vaughan also has to contend with the death of the mother of one of his pupils Darren Hughes (Mark Beswick). With help from former head Christine Mulgrew (Laurie Brett), Darren attempts to come to terms with his tragic loss and this incident prompts Vaughan to instigate a new initiative at the school. It appears to me as if the Waterloo Road writing team has a set number of different scenarios that they wheel out when new characters join the drama. I'm sure I've seen Vaughan's problems played out in the series before whilst the story of Darren mirrors that of several pupils before him. On the plus side Neil Pearson brings a new energy to the drama and his addition to the cast feels like the series will at least go out on somewhat of a high. Although I probably would've ended Waterloo Road when the original school was shut down, it does seem time for this school drama to move on.

It's not good news when a programme moves channels before it even airs but that's exactly what happened to sitcom Give Out Girls. Originally planned to be shown on Sky Living it was transferred to Comedy Central which, after watching episode one, was possibly a better fit. Set in the world of promotions Give out Girls follows the fortunes of four ladies who work for the Hot Staff company. The only character that the sitcom really spends any time with is 29-year-old Marilyn (Kerry Howard); an unreliable schemer who tries her best to do as little work as possible. Thanks to the fantastic performance by the ever-reliable Howard, Marilyn was the only one of Give Out Girls' characters who didn't feel like a cliché. Marilyn's colleagues are the snide beautiful Kiwi Zoe (Mianda Hennessy), fun-loving Welsh girl Poppy (Cariad Lloyd) and the naive Gemma (former X-Factor contestant Diana Vickers). I'm not sure why Hatty Ashdown and Tony MacMurray thought the world of promotions was such a comic minefield because the scenes where the girls were out on the street didn't yield much laughter. In fact the majority of the jokes in Give Out Girls were incredibly tired and included a ridiculous sexual harassment charge as well as Marilyn mistaking a facial mole for an olive. As she proved in Him and Her, Kerry Howard is a fantastic comic actress and I felt she made a potential two-dimensional character into somebody vaguely realistic. Aside from Howard, only Tracey Ann-Oberman as the girls' powersuit wearing boss made an impression. Although Howard and Oberman tried their best, they couldn't save a sitcom that didn't make me laugh once. Based on the evidence in this episode, Kerry Howard deserves much better and I'm hoping her next project is a programme worthy of her considerable comic talent.

If Ashdown and MacMurray want tips on how to create a successful long-running sitcom then they just have to look at Lee Mack's Not Going Out. Now in its seventh series, Mack employs the same formula with his slacker namesake still struggling to navigate through his everyday life. This first episode sees Lee emasculated as he fails to prevent a gang of youths from mugging Lucy (Sally Breton). Lee's shame sees him enrol in boxing classes before taking on a fight against an opponent who humiliates him once again. I believe that the problem with modern day sitcoms is that they spend so long coming up with a premise that they forget their key purpose it to make people laugh. Not Going Out provoked at least four or five big bell laughs during its thirty minute running time and I can't say that about too many other comedies. Although he's no actor, Mack's strength is in his delivery and he makes the far-fetched nature of the plot feel somewhat believable. His line about knitting thieves was particularly clever as was his banter with the receptionist at the boxing gym. As the straight man of the partnership, I don't believe Breton gets the credit she deserves as she sets Mack up for his jokes beautifully. As ditzy Daisy, Katy Wix is used sparingly and as a result doesn't feel as overused as she did in the sitcom's previous outing. After a tricky sixth series, it feels that all three principle players have now learnt to cope without Tim Vine and I believe that this is one of the strongest episodes of Not Going Out that I've seen for a while. Although I'm not sure that I'll find all ten instalments as funny as this opener it's still great to see that old-fashioned gag-based comedies are still succeeding in 2014.

That's your lot for now as always follow me on Twitter @mattstvbites for more of my views on the week's television.

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