Matt on the Box: The Casual Vacancy, Indian Summers, Bear Grylls: Mission Survive and House of Fools

by | Feb 25, 2015 | All, Reviews

Welcome back friends to another instalment of my look back at some recent TV highlights.

We start with a battle for Sunday night supremacy from two new dramas that felt incredibly similar in tone. Inevitably winning the ratings battle was Sarah Phelps’ three-part adaptation of JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy which aired on BBC One. Not knowing much about the story, I went in with an open mind to a drama which focuses on the fictional Cotswold town of Pagford. The town is seemingly an idyllic hamlet that has a respectable parish council headed by deli owner Howard Mollison (Michael Gambon). However, Pagford is bordered by council estate The Fields; which is home to drug addicted mother Terri Weedon and abusive father Simon Price. The story starts properly when Howard suggests that local stately home Sweetlove House could be turned into a luxury spa and hotel. This causes uproar among some members of the Parish Council as Sweetlove House currently houses several services, including a food bank and methadone clinic that are essential for the people of The Fields. Howard’s initial vote sees the council narrowly vote against the redevelopment thanks to an impassioned speech from solicitor, and Simon’s half-brother Barry Fairbrother (Rory Kinnear). Things change significantly when Barry drops dead meaning that there is a casual vacancy on the parish council. Whilst Howard convinces his son Miles (Rufus Jones) to run, Paul decides to throw his hat into the race believing he’ll get the sympathy vote from those who loved his brother. Meanwhile Barry’s supporters on the council enlist nervy headmaster Colin Wall (Simon McBurney) to be the third person running in the local election. From watching the first episode alone it appears that The Casual Vacancy will primarily be about a local election in a small close-knit community. It doesn’t seem like a thrilling prospect nor was the first instalment anything to really write home about.

My main problem with the first episode of The Casual Vacancy was that there were few likeable characters. The majority of Pagford’s residents either seemed to be incredibly pompous, like Howard and his wife Shirley; or not present enough to really pique my interest. There were only a couple of exceptions the first being Terri’s tearaway daughter Krystal, who made a strong impression from the first time she appeared on screen. Krystal is initially presented as a bad girl however we later see she has a softer side as she acts as the primary carer for both her mother and young brother. It’s no surprise that Sarah Phelps believes that Krystal is The Casual Vacancy’s most interesting character and spends the majority of the time trying to make her a sympathetic as possible. Phelps’ main change to the source material was to continue to make Barry an on-screen presence long after he’d dropped dead in the middle of the high street. This to me seemed like a brilliant idea as Barry was another likeable character thanks in part to Kinnear’s measured turn as the caring solicitor. As you would expect from BBC One, a large big name cast has been assembled with Julia McKenzie, Emilia Fox and Keeley Hawes all appearing alongside Gambon and Kinnear. However, I believe that a lot of the talent has been squandered with Fox especially ill-served by a character who only appeared in a single scene in episode one. My favourite performance came from Abigail Laurie who perfectly balanced the wild child elements of Krystal with her softer side. It’s amazing that, in a cast of seasoned performers, it’s the actress whose never appeared on screen before that has the biggest impact. Another positive element of The Casual Vacancy is its assured direction from Jonny Campbell, who makes sure that the town of Pagford becomes a character in and of itself. However Campbell can’t distract from the fact that The Casual Vacancy is quite a shallow drama with a lead story that focuses on a dull local election. I’m sure that fans of the book will keep watching to see how faithfully Phelps has stuck to the original story, but for me one episode of The Casual Vacancy was enough to know that I wouldn’t be returning to Pagford.

More enjoyable, certainly in my eyes, was Channel 4’s new ten-part period drama Indian Summers which didn’t do nearly as well as The Casual Vacancy in the overnight ratings. Part of the reason for this is that the first episode of Paul Rutman’s 1930s set drama was almost an hour longer than its BBC competition. Additionally, I feel that people are more comfortable sticking with BBC One than they are watching something on Channel 4, which I feel has a certain stigma attached to it. This is a shame as I think that the viewers who stuck with The Casual Vacancy missed something a lot more interesting on the other side. There are however a couple of similarities between the two dramas; as both feature communities in which gossip is rife as well focusing on a large amount of characters. The majority of Indian Summers’ characters are upper class Brits who journey to the town of Simla every year for the titular season which appears to be a cavalcade of drinking and debauchery. The hostess of the inaugural party is Cynthia Coffin (Julie Walters); a recently widowed socialite who is keen for her party to go off without a hitch. Cynthia is also very fond of Ralph Whelan (Henry Lloyd-Hughes); the private secretary to the viceroy whose career she has helped build. This summer season also sees the return of Ralph’s sister Alice (Jemima West) to Simla as she has escaped a loveless marriage in England taking her infant son Percy with her. As well as focusing on the Brits, Indian Summers looks at the natives who are forced to endure the presence of the wealthy foreigners every year. Rutman is keen to focus on the unrest in the town and it seems that times are changing with a growing group of rebels looking to overthrow the British rule. Stuck in the middle is Aafrin Dulal (Nikesh Patel); who works in the civil service and crosses paths with Ralph in the first episode. At the same time Aafrin’s sister is one of the rebels and is involved in a graffiti attack on a poster of Queen Victoria.

I personally felt that there was a lot to like about Indian Summers; especially in its sumptuous cinematography which perfectly capture Simla’s beautiful scenery. I also thought that the opening episode was well-paced for the most part and introduced most of the characters well. With the first half of the feature-long episode setting up Cynthia’s raucous party, the concluding part of the instalment had its fair share of drama. The biggest event of the episode saw Dalal take a bullet that was meant for Ralph and also made us question why the assailant described him as a devil. However I did feel that some of the ensemble cast were surplus to requirements such as pioneering doctor Dougie Raworth (Craig Parkinson) and his bigoted wife Sarah (Fiona Glascott). Possibly the most interesting character of the bunch was Cynthia; who was initially presented as a slightly eccentric old dear. It was only when she was on her own with Ralph that we began to see her more manipulative side as it appeared that she was the one who knew what was going on behind closed doors. I think it was a masterstroke casting Julie Walters as Cynthia, as she’s more known for playing sympathetic characters who don’t have a bad bone in their bodies. Walters appeared to relish the prospect of playing a sly character and she was on form in some of the episode’s darker scenes. Of the rest of the cast, I felt that Jemima West was great at conveying the fact that Alice had secrets that she was running away from. Similarly impressive was Nikesh Patel who made Dalal a likeable character who was caught up in the middle of the ongoing uprising. Of the two Sunday night dramas, Indian Summers definitely has the most promise and I believe that it can only get better over the course of the series. Although I haven’t quite found time to catch up with episode two I’ll definitely be returning to catch more of the beautiful locations and impressive central performances.

Away from the lavish costumes and scenery of the Sunday night dramas we turn our attention to the Costa Rican rainforest for a twelve day trek with an octet of nervous celebrities. Our eight participants have all signed up for Bear Grylls: Mission Survive; in which the ubiquitous outdoorsman pushes all of them to their limits. It basically seems like this was a challenge for some famous faces that feel like I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here is beyond them with the group including Silent Witness star Emilia Fox and her cousin Laurence. Also taking part were Dame Kelly Holmes; who faced her fear of jumping into water within the show’s first ten minutes, and Mike Tindall who seems to be pushing himself a lot this year after recently featuring on The Jump. It was clear from the start that certain stars realised that the more they were struggling the more camera time they would get. This was definitely true of Jamelia, who seemed to have a fear of everything including a quite bizarre phobia of horses. As this is an ITV reality show of sorts, at the end of every episode one of the celebrities will be eliminated from the programme. This will be the person who Bear believes to be the least competent survivor, however he broke the rules in episode one by not sending anyone home. Although Bear does spy on the group from time to time, often eerily lurking in the bushes, he does have his own Nick and Margaret in the form of survival experts Scott and Meg. Whilst I don’t mind seeing celebrities push themselves to the limit, Bear Grylls: Mission Survive was very poorly paced and didn’t hold my attention at all. Although there seemed to be tension brewing between some of the celebs, there were no real arguments which often make these programmes more enjoyable. ITV tried something similar to Mission Survive a few years ago with 71 Degrees North and I feel that, just like that programme, Bear Grylls’ celebrity expedition will soon fade from the memory.

We finish today with Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer’s absurdist sitcom House of Fools which recently returned for a second series. I wasn’t a particular fan of House of Fools first time round and was a little upset when it was recommissioned in favour of Reeves’ superior sitcom Hebburn. However, having watched the Christmas Special, it appeared that there had been a little improvement in the quality of the show so I thought I’d give it another go. Unfortunately it seems that Reeves and Mortimer have stuck to the same format that made the comedy supposedly funny the first time round. That means that there was plenty of saucepan shots, in-jokes and a recurring gag in which Bob’s on-screen son Erik (Daniel Simonsen) was naked in preparation for his blind date. If there was one bright spot then it was in the supporting cast most notably the fantastic Matt Berry as the womanising Beef. Although Beef is a very similar character to Berry’s fantastic Steven Toast, I still feel like he commands the screen more than Reeves and Mortimer ever do. Elsewhere, Morgana Robinson and Dan Skinner were equally on form as flirty Julie and oddball Bosh respectively. In fact my favourite scene from episode one featured Julie trying to explain to Bosh how best to treat customers at her newly-opened Bistro. Although the gags in this scene were as obvious as they were in the rest of the episode, I felt that Robinson and Skinner both had great comic timing which made the lines funnier than they probably were. However, the most damming thing I can say about House of Fools that it failed to make me laugh once and it feels like Reeves and Mortimer are simply playing to their most devoted fans. As the two leads finished episode one by singing ‘Reunited’ it honestly felt to me as if House of Fools was almost too self-indulgent and I really hope that Reeves and Mortimer up their game after their latest sitcom runs its course.

That’s your lot for now, remember to follow me on Twitter @mattstvbites for more of my views on the week’s TV.

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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