Welcome to another instalment of Matt on the Box where we’re going to travel back to the Bank Holiday weekend to see what the two major channels had to offer us.
I definitely believe that ITV had the stronger weekend thanks in part to the final episode of the brilliant Endeavour and also the great biopic Tommy Cooper – Not Like That Like This. Simon Nye’s drama started when Tommy Cooper (David Threlfall) was already a popular comedian and magician. Despite his rising stardom, Cooper was adamant that he continued to tour in small and dingy venues up and down the country. This led to friction between he and his wife Dove (Amanda Redman) who wanted to spend more time at home with their children. Meanwhile, Tommy’s first day at his ITV show introduces him to floor manager Mary (Helen McRory) who is quickly won over by his charms. After Tommy’s manager (Gregor Fisher) doesn’t prove to be a suitable replacement for Dove he asks Mary to go on the road with him. Mary’s presence lights up Tommy’s life as she proves to be an invaluable assistant and the two inevitably begin an affair based on their mutual appreciation of one another. However Tommy’s struggles with his health and his alcoholism take his toll on Mary and she eventually quits when he hits her. Meanwhile, following a tabloid story, Dove discovers the true extent of Tommy’s infidelity and kicks him out of the house. The two soon reconcile when Tommy has a heart attack in Italy but, bored of a simple life, begins to tour once again. As everybody watching has prior knowledge of what happened to Tommy during his final performance, his arrival at Live From Her Majesty’s was hard to watch. Following his death, Mary and Dove come face to face at the hospital however the latter has no idea who the former is and she is able to leave without any altercation occurring.
This final scene, like many that had come before it, were beautifully acted and written which I feel was a trademark of the programme. It was clear to me that Simon Nye was a massive fan of Tommy Cooper’s work and really demonstrated what made the man so popular in the first place. As somebody who wasn’t really aware of Cooper’s act, I found Not Like That, Like This to be a real celebration of the man’s talents. Obviously, this being a biopic, Nye also had to explore Cooper’s darker side and I feel that he struggled to do so as the scenes demonstrating his violent temper felt the most unnatural. Unlike many other dramas dealing with comedians, for example those we saw in BBC4’s Curse of Comedy season, Not Like That Like This was incredibly funny throughout. As Cooper’s manager notes, Tommy had a case of the funnies meaning that he couldn’t stop trying to make people laugh whenever he spoke. Although Nye’s script was perfectly crafted, what most people will remember about the programme is David Threlfall’s outstanding central performance. He doesn’t so much play Cooper as transform himself into the comedian to the extent that you believe you’re watching the real thing. Threlfall gets Cooper’s mannerisms down to a tea and his performance during Tommy’s final moments was just an example of great acting at work. Unlike others, I didn’t feel that the drama was a one man show and Threlffall was incredibly well supported by his two leading actresses. Amanda Redman gave a suitably over-the-top performance as the bold and brassy Dove whilst Helen McRory was a lot more understated as the sensitive Mary. Both had great chemistry with Threlfall and I feel the drama wouldn’t have been as good if these actresses had been replaced by lesser talents. My only complaint with the programme was the way in which ITV scheduled it on Easter Monday with its two hour runtime meaning that it didn’t finish till 11pm. I feel that a lot of people who had to be at work in the morning weren’t willing to make that commitment and the programme’s ratings suffered as a result. However, if you were one of those who chose to skip the programme at the time, I urge you to go back and watch what was truly a brilliant two hours of TV drama.
Winning the ratings battle on Bank Holiday Monday night was BBC1’s three-part adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. The plot of the costume drama focused on Mary Yellan (Jessica Brown Findlay) a young girl who journeys to the Cornish coast in order to stay with her aunt. When she gets to Jamaica Inn she finds her Aunt Patience (Joanne Whalley) to be a shell of her former self whilst her Uncle Joss (Sean Harris) is presented as a brute of a man. In fact Joss’ smuggling escapades help drive the action along and culminate in the first episode’s most impressive scene, a night time salvage of stolen goods on the beach. Meanwhile Mary finds herself drawn to Joss’ brother Jem (Matthew McNulty), who happens upon Mary while she’s washing herself. Although there’s an initial attraction between the pair, Mary can’t forget the fact that Jem is himself involved in the smuggling trade and Mary’s father was himself killed by smugglers. I personally felt that Jamaica Inn was perfectly serviceable period drama and was ideal for a Bank Holiday weekend. It’s coastal locations coupled with its easy-to-follow story meant that viewers could be easily drawn in and the set pieces were well-executed. The central performances were all great, most notably Joanne Whalley as faded beauty Patience and Sean Harris as the brutish Joss. On the downside I felt Emma Frost’s script was trying to be too faithful to the Du Maurier’s original story and there were some unnecessary segments that slowed the pace down too much. Another thought I had while watching a preview of the show was that a lot of what Sean Harris said was incredibly incomprehensible. At the time I thought this was just Harris’ attempt at method acting but then it turned out that the whole production had been plagued by sound issues. Unfortunately the problems with the sound made Jamaica Inn unwatchable for a lot of people and that’s a shame as I felt it was one of the better produced TV literary adaptations in the last year or so. Instead it will probably be best remembered for the problems with production rather than the great performances and outstanding cinematography.
The brilliant Endeavour aired its final instalment last week and I for one thought it was one of the best TV episodes of the year so far. However I don’t think I’ll ever say that about Endeavour’s replacement on Sunday nights, Vera, which returned for a fourth series. I’m not quite sure who the Northumberland based crime series is aimed at but it certainly has maintained a strong following as almost six million people watched it on ITV last Sunday. Based on Anne Cleeves’ latest Vera novel On Harbour Street, the mystery took a personal turn for DC Joe Ashworth (David Leon) after his daughter discovered a dead body on a train. The fact that said daughter is a lot older than she was last time we checked in with Vera is never really explained but it’s clear that we’ve jumped several years from when the last series was set. When it’s discovered that the woman in question was seen as saintly by most, Vera (Brenda Blethyn) is forced to use her brilliant deduction skills to solve the mystery. Vera is incredibly formulaic crime drama, down to the fact that a second dead body turns up just before the third ad break, but then that may be the appeal of it. I personally don’t think it really is anything special as it lacks the intelligent plotting of the aforementioned Endeavour or the quirkiness of something like Midsomer Murders or Death in Paradise. Even though I’ve watched the majority of the past few series of Vera, primarily for reviewing purposes, I can’t say that I’m particularly invested in the characters. That’s not a slight on the performances from the reliable Brenda Blethyn and especially David Leon who I think put in a fine turn in this opening episode. Instead I feel that there’s not enough focus put on the personal lives of the lead detectives and as a result I really have no emotional attachment to any of the characters. Why some people keep coming back for more Vera is beyond me but then I suppose some people enjoy the predictability of the show.
Moving on to something a bit lighter now and Sky Living’s newest comedy Trying Again. The focus of the show is Matt and Meg (Chris Addison and Jo Joyner) a couple who are attempting to rebuild their relationship after she cheated on him. A lot of the comedy comes from his struggles to trust her especially after she fails to tell him that she’s got a job at the surgery in which she once worked. The surgery is also the workplace of the doctor she had the affair with (Charles Edwards) and things get even more complicated when he reveals he still has feelings for her. A lot of the comedy in Trying Again comes from the gender reversal that writer Simon Blackwell employs throughout the episode. For example its Meg that wants to have sex while its Matt whose always rebuffing her. In addition, this first episode’s running gag is that potential buyers of Meg’s flat are being shown round the property, often at the most inopportune times. I have to say that I enjoyed Trying Again a lot more than I first thought I would. This is partly due to the fact that Blackwell has created two realistic and easy-to-like characters as the programme’s central couple. Addison and Joyner have a really great chemistry and it’s a joy to see the latter smile a bit as she never did as Tanya in Eastenders. The cast is bolstered by some brilliant support performances, most notably from Elizabeth Berrington as Matt’s foul-mouthed driving instructor sister. More than anything, Trying Again is a sitcom that’s actually funny and I laughed out loud on two separate occasions. If I have one complaint it’s that I don’t believe that Meg could ever have been attracted to Edwards’ doctor to the extent that she’d cheat on her boyfriend. But this is a minor quibble in what was a charming and funny sitcom that had two relaxed and likeable leads.
Unfortunately this description can’t be employed when talking about Ricky Gervais’ Derek which returned for its second full series last week. As we join him for a second run simpleton Derek (Gervais) is delighted that his father Anthony (Tony Rohr) is moving into the home. Meanwhile, Hannah (Kerry Godliman) is now trying for a baby with her partner Tom (Brett Goldstein). This first episode also said goodbye to the home’s handyman Dougie (Karl Pilkington) who left after a disagreement with the new cocky member of staff Geoff (Colin Hoult). I personally feel that Dougie’s departure will leave a big hole in the cast as he was one of the only likeable characters in the show. My problem with Derek is the same as most other people’s, namely that it’s hard not to be drawn to the fact that Gervais is essentially playing a character with learning difficulties. Even though he continues to protest that Derek is simply a Frank Spencer-type innocent his performance would suggest otherwise. With Pilkington gone, Godliman’s Hannah is the only sympathetic character in the programme and she continues to be the only highlight in a programme which is plagued with difficulties. Even if you ignore Gervais’ central performance I think Derek’s narrative is another key issue. Whilst the faux-documentary style worked for The Office, which was made during the boom of the docusoap era, I don’t understand why a camera crew would want to capture the sad events that happen at the home. I just don’t believe that this programme would ever be made and it just seems like a lazy way for Gervais to tell the story. In addition the mixture of bawdy humour, most of which is supplied by David Earl’s Kev, and more emotional moments means that Derek’s tone feels awfully imbalanced. The result is a programme which doesn’t know if it wants to be a comedy or a comedy drama and one that has a problematic lead performance from a man who should probably know better.
That’s your lot for now, if you want to know more about my thoughts on TV follow me on Twitter @mattstvbites.