This week we present a rather drama heavy instalment of Matt on the Box as we have three very different offerings that aired on different channels over the past seven days.
Firstly we have one of my most hotly anticipated dramas of the year in the form of Shane Meadows’ This is England ’90. I’ve been a fan of Meadows’ saga ever since watching the original film back in 2007 however my love of his characters has grown thanks to the subsequent miniseries. Both This is England ’86 and This is England ’88 were full of emotionally charged moments and brilliant performances. However both of these series did start quite slowly and This is England ’90 definitely followed suit with an opener that was mostly concerned with showing us what had happened to the characters since that eventful Christmas of 1988. Lol (Vicky McClure) appeared to have had the biggest turnaround since her suicide attempt and was now happily in charge of the kitchens at the local school. Meanwhile the responsibility that Woody (Joe Gilgun) once had has evaporated and he’s now a stay-at-home dad and is seemingly happy to live off Lol’s wage. Meanwhile the rest of the male members of the gang are happily living a slacker existence dividing their time between scrounging food from Lol and getting a free supply of drugs from Harvey (Michael Socha). Although the mood was light for the majority of the first episode it looked like the rest of this series could spell misery for Shaun (Thomas Turgoose). Since the last series, Shaun has split up with Smell (Rosamund Hanson) and is refusing to return to college. Convinced by his friends to do more drugs, Shaun erupted into a fit of rage after being confronted by Smell’s new boyfriend. I do fear that Shaun will eventually become addicted to drugs throughout the course of 1990. If this is the case then I applaud Meadows for putting the focus back on the youngest member of the cast as he was the central protagonist of the first This is England film.
Part of the charm of Shane Meadow’s saga is the elements of nostalgia peppered throughout the series and this is certainly true of This is England ’90. Meadows and co-writer Jack Thorne sporadically insert references to the music of the time throughout the episode which culminated in a Madchester Night at the local town hall. Obviously the music of Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses loomed large over the episode but at the same time never overpowered the overall story. Instead Meadows and Thorne seemed dedicated to ending the story of the This is England gang in style. Most of the highlights in this first episode came courtesy of Woody and his interactions with his strait-laced parents. Their suggestion that he go back to work and leave his and Lol’s children in the care of his former girlfriend didn’t go down too well nor should it have done. However Woody’s reconciliation with his parents over the phone was a perfectly choreographed comic exchange that summed up the mood of this first episode. It does help that Joe Gilgun is a particularly skilled comic actor and he utilised these skills fully during an episode that was very lightweight when compared with other This is England offerings. However there were dark clouds looming over the horizon both thanks to Shaun’s story and the suggestion that there was something wrong with Lol’s sister Kelly (Chanel Creswell). Even though I don’t wish harm on these characters that I’ve grown to love, the best moments of This is England have always come from a rather powerful event as well as its emotional aftermath. That being said I’m happy to spend a little time with these characters before things get rough and this is primarily due to the fact that Meadows has made me care about them so much over the past eight years.
A complete contrast to the kitchen sink-esque exploits of Meadows’ gang is the high pressure world of the American gaming industry which was the focus of new one-off drama The Gamechangers. Written by Rev co-creator James Wood, The Gamechangers centred round the creator of Grand Theft Auto Sam Houser (Daniel Radcliffe) as he went about making the latest addition in the franchise; San Andreas. Wood portrayed Houser as somewhat of a tortured genius at some points snapping at his co-workers and friends as he worried that his new game wouldn’t be ready in time. Running alongside Houser’s story was that of lawyer Jack Thompson (Bill Paxton) who was campaigning to get violent video games banned citing the incident in which a teenager shot dead three cops after playing GTA for hours. After losing the initial court case, Thompson got his chance to shine after a sex scene was discovered in the code of San Andreas. However Houser and his company Rockstar games won out in the end whilst Thompson had been disbarred for several comments he made during various media appearances. From a positive standpoint I did enjoy the look at the making of a video game from the perspective of those on the frontline and the hurried attempts to get the world of San Andreas right was oddly compelling. I also enjoyed the story of Jack Thompson, who caused his own downfall due to being overly self-righteous. At the same time it was clear that Wood and director Owen Harris never got the permission of Rockstar Games and therefore the scenes inside their offices were oddly stilted and the dialogue felt unnatural. Furthermore I was unclear who to sympathise with as Houser was painted as overly arrogant whilst the campaigning Thompson was at heart a man who only wanted the best for his family. The fact that the drama ended with the announcement of a law banning the sale of violent video games to minors suggested that Thompson had been right all along even though he’d been portrayed as the antagonist throughout. As Thompson, Bill Paxton gave the best performance of the cast whilst Daniel Radcliffe struggled to make me sympathise with Houser at all. Ultimately, although it had its moments, The Gamechangers was a paint-by-numbers biopic and I personally feel that the story would have made for a better documentary than it did a drama.
Moving onto our third and most traditional drama of this instalment which comes courtesy of BBC One’s latest adaptation of JB Priestly’s An Inspector Calls. Having never read or seen a production of An Inspector Calls I was rather unaware of the story and the only thing I knew about it was that there was a twist at the end. The sleuth of the title in Inspector Goole (David Thewlis) who arrives at the house of the of the Birling family during their celebration of the engagement of their daughter Sheila (Chloe Pirrie) to the respectable Gerald Croft (Kyle Soller). Goole’s news that a young woman has committed suicide initially falls on deaf ears, but during his time at the Birlings the Inspector reveals that each member of the family caused Eva’s death in one way or another. As An Inspector Calls is one of the most famous plays it was hard not to see Helen Edmundson’s adaptation as anything more than a televised stage production. At times this couldn’t be helped as the majority of Priestly’s work involves the Inspector talking to the Birling family in the front room, which makes for a rather static setting. Even when Edmundson and director Aisling Walsh try to bring events out of the household, employing a number of flashbacks, it feels like they’re trying too hard. Although visually unremarkable, I eventually became entranced by An Inspector Calls even though the drama did have quite a slow start. Part of the reason for this is the story which I didn’t know and is as involving know as it would’ve been for the audiences who originally saw it. However what made this new adaptation so gripping were the performances from the ensemble cast primarily Thewlis as the outspoken Inspector. Thewlis made every one of Goole’s lines count as he systematically shot down every member of the Birling family pointing out their faults and their hypocrisies one-by-one. Meanwhile Ken Stott and Miranda Richardson provided excellent support as industrialist Arthur Birling and his wife Sybil respectively. Even though it might be yet another period drama, I found An Inspector Calls to be a cut above the rest due to the fine performances and the nail-biting script.
After a rather respectable drama we end with something a bit more frivolous in the form of The Sound of ITV which let us know just what the nation thought to be the channel’s best theme tune. Throughout the course of this hour-long rundown Victoria Wood, who was providing the voice-over, kept informing the audience that the list had been voted for by viewers in some sort of online poll. But when you consider that the eventual top three theme tunes were Tales of the Unexpected, Thunderbirds and The Benny Hill Show, I don’t think anybody taking the online poll was under the age of forty-five. I have to say it was a stretch for to even a concoct a top twenty list which featured dubious entries such as This is Your Life and Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The stories behind the creations of the theme tunes weren’t that interesting as it quickly became apparent that composers weren’t the most entertaining of talking heads. That’s why the best moments for me came when someone famous actually got to talk about a particular theme tune. Luckily ITV got the one famous face who knows a thing or two about theme tunes that being Dennis Waterman. In particular Waterman talked about crooning on the legendary Minder theme tune, which should have been higher in the list, and how he never wanted to appear on Top of the Pops as he wanted to be the next Dylan. Unlike ITV’s other music list shows, which I’ve found to be genuinely entertaining and informative, this was almost a self-congratulatory exercise. Although I’m a massive fan of theme tunes there was about half a dozen amongst the top twenty that I actually felt were genuine classics with the rest simply being opening music to some of the channel’s best-remembered shows. However, unlike most of ITV’s drama output this year, the list show did have an unlikely ending as I would never have guessed that the Benny Hill Show music would be the nation’s favourite. But then again it does say a lot about the ITV audience and how some people haven’t moved on since the early 1970s.
That’s your lot for now, remember you can always follow me on Twitter @mattstvbites and I’ll see you next time.