Matt on the Box: Brief Encounters, The Living and The Dead, Celebrity Masterchef and Gogglesprogs

by | Jul 15, 2016 | All, Reviews

As you may have noticed I’ve been away from a while primarily as TV has offered us very little in the way of highlights. However new shows are gradually creeping onto the TV amidst all the sport and politics so I thought I’d revive the column for one week to talk about what’s going on while I’ve been away.

Over the past couple of weeks both of of the country’s major channels have released big dramas that they hope will entice viewers over the summer months. ITV’s offering came in the form of Brief Encounters, a 1980’s set ensemble piece that focuses on a group of women who find empowerment via their hosting of Ann Summers parties. The central focus of the six-part comedy drama is Steph, (Sophie Rundle), a cleaner who was struggling to keep her family’s head above water which was made harder when her husband Terry (Karl Davies) was laid off from his factory job. Steph sees an opportunity to make money from hosting Ann Summers parties and although is put off by the risqué nature of the products she’s encouraged by Nita (Angela Griffin) another mum at her son’s school. Struggling to find somewhere to host her first party Steph approaches Pauline (Penelope Wilton); a middle class lady whom she cleans for to ask if she can use her house for a venue. At first Pauline is horrified by the suggestion but eventually lets Steph host the function after discovering she’s perpetually bored whilst her butcher husband Brian (Peter Wight) has all the fun. The party itself is predictably uncomfortable viewing at first especially after a bunch of Pauline’s snotty friends arrive unannounced and one of their number is appalled by what’s occurring. However as time transpires the women find themselves opening up about their lives and are convinced by the end of the night that they are the people who should bring sex to Sheffield. Inevitably though the ladies’ partners aren’t thrilled by the party and for Terry this means leaving Steph in the lurch and quickly having it off with one of his best friends’ partners. Meanwhile Brian is disgusted by what his wife’s been up to but after she gives a very impassioned speech it seems that they have rediscovered the spark in their marriage. But a final word from Brian in this first episode suggests that things aren’t going to be as simple for Pauline if she wants to continue with the Ann Summers parties in the long term. However one thing I’m wondering is how writers Fay Rusling and Oriane Messina are going to differentiate each of the parties that Steph and the girls are going to throw throughout the series.

After having seen the trailers for Brief Encounters I’d already written it off as another ensemble comedy drama in the vein something Kay Mellor probably would’ve written. In some respects that’s what we got and I found some of the writing and story points to be fairly clichéd. For example I could tell right from the start that Terry was going to stray from Steph meanwhile it seems fairly obvious that she’ll soon be shacking up with the kindly policeman played by Ben Bailey Smith. There were also several gags that felt incredibly obvious with the best example being when fun-loving Dawn (Sharon Rooney) ate Pot Pourri believing it was a bowl of crisps, something I bet nobody has ever done outside of a fictional setting. But despite these flaws I still found myself enjoying Brief Encounters primarily thanks to the characterisation and lead performers. It’s clear from watching the first episode that Rusling and Messina have a real love for their characters and want to see them do well. I certainly felt that Steph was a well-crafted character who was someone who was determined to put food on her family’s table even if it meant doing things that she wasn’t exactly comfortable about. The brilliant Sophie Rundle displayed Steph’s emotions perfectly as she portrayed the character as initially quite timid before fully unleashing the character at the party. However the most compelling storyline in my eyes was that involving Pauline, a middle age woman whose biggest thrill in the week is having a cup of tea with her cleaner. The relationship between Pauline and Brian felt incredibly realistic as the later was presented as the pillar of the community while the former was simply the wife who had to sit at home and come up with ideas about how to cook whatever he brought home from the butcher’s shop. Just like Rundle, I think Penelope Wilton is absolutely perfect here and her brilliant turn as Pauline instantly makes you sympathise with the character especially after Brian’s words to her in the final scene. Not all of the cast are that well-served in this first episode most notably the always great Sharon Rooney who finds herself playing the loud younger member of the group who is easily the most eager member of the Anne Summers gang. Having not seen any more episodes of the series yet I’m yet to see if Rooney’s character of Dawn has more to do going forward but I hope she does as I’m a big fan of the actress. Overall Brief Encounters definitely caught me by surprise as it was a programme I didn’t have particularly high hopes for but one that I found was both enjoyable and had characters with whom you instantly sympathised. Though it’s far from perfect, Brief Encounters is certainly a step above the standard summer drama and is definitely a programme that I’ll be sticking with for the time being.

The same can’t be said for BBC One’s new drama The Living and The Dead which feels like it’s been put on at entirely the wrong time of year. Because, whilst Ashley Pharoah’s drama is indeed sun-drenched in tone, the spooky elements make me feel that this should be on later in the years when it’s dark outside and people are more likely to feel a little jumpy. But even with the change of season I do feel people may struggle to find any true scares in a programme which I felt borrowed from established horror classics without coming up with many ideas of its own. The Living and The Dead sees psychologist Nathan Appleby (Colin Morgan) and his wife Charlotte (Charlotte Spencer) return to his family home after his mother takes ill. The family home in question Shepzoy House in Somerset; which includes a farm whose workers feel under threat due to the oncoming industrial revolution. Shepzoy House contains plenty of painful memories primarily as both his son and first wife died there and his return also seems to put pressure on his relationship with Charlotte. However Nathan’s services are called upon after vicar’s daughter Harriet (Tallulah Heddon) starts talking in a man’s voice and acting incredibly peculiarly. As Nathan tries to get to the bottom of Harriet’s problems, the demons that seem to be possessing the young girl bring up old memories of his previous life at the farm. Meanwhile Charlotte’s presence on the farm has a negative impact on the employees all of whom don’t like the new-fangled ideas she has for the land. As you would expect there are plenty of moments that are meant to send shivers down the spine but most of the scariest moments remind me of films and TV shows that did this better. Obviously in its story of the week The Living and The Dead owes a lot to The Exorcist, especially when it comes to the voice that young Harriet takes on when she is seemingly possessed by a demon. The concept of a man returning to a house in which his former wife died also smacks of Rebecca and there were other moments in here that got me thinking about numerous films that I liked more. Ashley Pharoah is a writer I admire a lot but there was nothing in The Living and The Dead that I particularly cared for or found that memorable. One big problem is that I don’t find Colin Morgan to be that convincing a lead here and neither he nor Charlotte Spencer really make an impression as the central couple. Of the cast only the wonderful Kerrie Hayes as the Appleby’s employee Gwen made any real effort to make The Living and The Dead seem interesting. Unfortunately it takes more than one performance to turn a TV drama around and The Living and The Dead just didn’t have anything else going on to interest me so it’s no surprise that I won’t be tuning in again.

BBC One’s other major show that has aired over the last few weeks is the now annual summer tradition of Celebrity Masterchef which this year welcomed twenty new ‘stars’ into its kitchen. It comes to something when somebody who watches as much telly as I do can’t even recognise the celebrities on this show but that’s exactly what happened when vlogger Marcus Butler stepped into the kitchen on the opening episode. Butler seems to be one of my of Celeb Masterchef’s signing that is meant to appeal to younger viewers alongside such names as Towie’s Amy Childs and BBC Three mainstay Cherry Healey. However so far it has been the more recognisable faces that have been earning plaudits from the judges with the likes of the Rev. Richard Coles and BBC Breakfast’s Louise Minchin looking like frontrunners early on. Although I do enjoy some aspects of Celebrity Masterchef I do feel that the tasks where the stars are away from the kitchen really add nothing to the show. Seeing the likes of Big Mo from Eastenders and Simon from Blue in a professional kitchen is funny for about two minutes but I always ended up sympathising with the professional chefs who let these C-listers loose in their restaurants all to get a little bit of free publicity. Similarly the mass catering challenge does little for me and neither of these seems to factor into Gregg Wallace and John Torode’s final decision. Another issue I’ve had with the show is that after the celebrities have cooked their own food for the judges for the first time they sort of already know who they’re going to put through to the semi-finals. This was most prominent in the show’s second week when rugby star Neil Back and the aforementioned Rev. Coles were heralded as the top chefs that week but had to complete another three challenges before they received their semi-final spots. That being said I can’t deny that I do enjoy Celebrity Masterchef especially the round which sees finalists from the show’s past return to critique the dishes presented by the current crop of famous cooks. This is especially true of the week in which the fantastic double act of Andi Peters and Rylan got to have their say which provided some moments of genuine hilarity. Celebrity Masterchef is certainly an easy programme to watch which is why I think I’ve stuck with it so far but I do feel that the producers have to come up with some unique tasks in the closing stages of the competition to really pique my interest.

Finally we come to a show that has been tugging on the nation’s heartstrings every Friday as Channel 4 have rolled out a whole series of Gogglesprogs. After getting quite a good response when it aired on Christmas Day, this junior approximation of Gogglebox was given its own series for the summer. As somebody who thought the Christmas series was alright but thought it worked better as a one-off I was sceptical about how well a full run of Gogglesprogs would work. However, like most of the audience, I was won over by the innocent opinions of these junior critics and their natural reactions to programmes many of us had seen months ago. I actually think that in some ways Gogglesprogs works better than its older brother as the subjects in this case aren’t trying to think of the next funny line to say in order to get more airtime. The commentary on shows such as The Getaway Car and Call the Midwife feels incredibly organic and just some of the reactions to the latter show were particularly heartwarming. I applaud Channel 4 for putting this on before the watershed as it does pro-vide decent family viewing before the more abrasive comedy programmes come on afterwards. The one issue that I think the programme does have is that there is less of a selection of programmes for the youngsters to cast their views on so run-of-the-mill shows such as It’s Not Rocket Science are reviewed long after most of us have forgotten about them. But I don’t think this matters too much especially when the highlights of Gogglesprogs for me is hearing the kids’ unfiltered thoughts on the week’s news events. Just like with Gogglebox I am started to like some of the Gogglesprogs more than others and I think my favourites have to be brothers Jacob and Connor who I feel are wiser than their years. Furthermore I like the idea of having the kids’ parents just off camera providing their kids with advice and snacks amidst giving their opinions on what they’ve been watching. More than anything else I think Gogglesprogs proves just how smart the children of this country are with some of their opinions being more well-rounded than those given by their adult counterparts. Whilst I can’t say I find Gogglesprogs as entertaining as Gogglebox is certainly more of an enjoyable watch thanks to the innocence of the youngsters and their candid thoughts on some of the biggest shows and events that have occurred over the past year.

That’s your lot for now I’ll be back in a fortnight for more of the same and in the mean time you can follow me on Twitter @mattstvbites 

Matt Donnelly

Matt Donnelly


Made in Staffordshire, Matt is the co-editor of the site and co-host of The Custard TV Podcast. Matt has been writing about TV for over fifteen years and has written for the site for almost a decade. He's just realised this makes him a lot older than he thought he was.


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