When ITV first announced new six-part drama Breathless, people (myself included I’m ashamed to say) were quick to comment and say ITV were cashing in on the huge success of BBC1’s Call the Midwife. I suppose the comparison is fair with them both focusing on the early days of gynaecology but that really is where any similarity ends.
On the set in London writer Paul Unwin told me that the programme had, “been in development for about four years before it got the green light from ITV. I think Call the Midwife is fantastic and I really admire it, the only thing about the comparison that frustrates me is the worry that they will be seen as competition. We’re telling a very different story.”
Unlike Call the Midwife (and that’s the last time I’ll make the comparison I promise), Breathless is dark, fast paced and surprisingly stylish. It’s bright in colour, looks fresh and inviting and doesn’t have that air of tweeness that often accompanies the bog-standard period drama. It doesn’t feel cosy and that’s what I found most surprising about it. If I’m 100% honest I wasn’t sure it would be my kind of thing. Whilst I understand the popularity of Call the Midwife (oops sorry) and Downton they’ve never appealed to me. Dramas of this ilk seem to live in a very different world, that I find it hard to connect with. It took me ten or so minutes but after that I felt completely immersed in the world that these brilliantly drawn characters inhabit.
I was also pleasantly surprised by how much I could identify with 1961. As Jack Davenport told me on set, “1961 is barely the sixties. The Beatles haven’t even turned up yet, and when they do they’re all wearing suits. We’re actually in a much more formal world than you’d think. People talk slightly differently and their respect for social structures is much more in place. The Pill only just arrived in 1961, abortion was still illegal.” The era is an interesting one and one I’m not sure I’ve seen tackled before. It’s a world of great formality where social status is still very much a part of society and a world where what goes on behind closed doors is barely spoken of. There’s a palpable air of tension that runs across this first episode that draws you in. I found the dialogue and the rhythm of the speech on display here fascinating and a real change to some of the dialogue we’ve become overly familiar with in other medical dramas in recent memory. Breathless is not a show about hero doctors or maverick lifesavers, it’s a show about the characters and they are truly an interesting and shadowy lot.
Jack Davenport is perfectly suited to the mysterious but admired Otto Powell. Joanna Page is virtually unrecognisable as happy-go-lucky housewife Lily and relative newcomer Catherine Steadman shines as new nurse Angela Wilson. There’s a lot going on here but it never feels rushed or confusing and I just revelled in the darkness and mystery that builds with every scene. The hospital scenes and medical procedures in this first episode are few and far between but what we do see offers an interesting insight into a world that feels virtually alien when compared to modern day medicine but then you’re reminded we’re only talking fifty years or so.
If you’re hoping for your average period drama, the sort you can settle down with with your feet up whilst occasionally sipping on a hot cup of tea and a biscuit of your choosing then I think Breathless might not be for you. If you’re looking for a fast paced, brilliantly cast piece of drama full of intrigue then this is right up your alley. And please, please don’t let the period setting put you off.
Breathless starts on Thursday 10th October at 9.00pm on ITV.