Matt on the Box: This Week’s TV Highlights: Burton and Taylor, Who Do You Think You Are, Badults, The Cafe and Luther

by | Jul 27, 2013 | All, Reviews

Welcome to another look back at the past seven days in television.

We start with a one-off drama that signals the end of an era that drama being Burton and Taylor. As far as we know, the biographical film will be the last homegrown drama produced by BBC4, a channel that has previously given us the brilliant Curse of Comedy season as well as last year’s brilliant Kenny Everett biopic. Personally, I feel that the BBC4 drama legacy has gone out on a high with the tale of two acting icons appearing together for the first time. The story is set in 1983 and based in New York where Richard Burton (Dominic West) is being reunited with two time ex-wife Elizabeth Taylor (Helena Bonham Carter). Burton and Taylor are coming together in order to star in a Broadway production of Noel Coward’s Private Lives. At this point in his career, Burton wanted to be seen as a serious stage actor while Taylor was still addicted to drugs and drink. A couple of the scenes demonstrate that the chemistry still exists between the two, even though both are in new relationships, and this plays into the intrigue of the piece. Meanwhile the production of Private Lives is thwarted by Elizabeth’s unprofessionalism, including not reading the script until a few days before the curtain goes up. The play itself is sold out, but it transpires that most of the audience have come to see the couple act out their dramas on stage rather than watch a Noel Coward play. As Burton becomes increasingly frustrated with Liz’s attitude, as well as the poor reviews, it seems their relationship his heading to breaking point. But, as the final scene demonstrates, it seems that Taylor and Burton were destined to be in love forever.

One thing that all the BBC4 biopics have had in common is that they always feature brilliant performances and Burton and Taylor is no exception. Bonham-Carter completely becomes Elizabeth Taylor and gets the majority of her mannerisms spot on. The actress can certainly inhabit any character she portrays and I feel that she got the balance of Taylor’s diva behaviour and her inner-pain just right. The actress is also great at comic timing and she and West bounced off each other superbly. While I don’t think West became Richard Burton, I still found his performance compelling and I feel that he had the harder job, essentially playing the straight man. The pair definitely made you believe in their relationship and their undying love for each other was perfectly portrayed in a tender final scene. My issue with the piece was that William Ivory’s script was almost a little too tame and I felt both of the lead characters acted too reasonable throughout. You never really got the sense of Taylor and Burton’s tumultuous relationship and all of Elizabeth’s major outbursts, including her abandoning the production, are seen off-screen. Despite this, I still found the majority of Burton and Taylor to be a compelling, often witty tale of the final act in the lives of two screen icons. I feel this was an honourable send-off for the BBC4 drama production and I hope that this kind of well-written biographical drama continues to be made for BBC2. If this doesn’t happen I feel the BBC are missing a trick as there is definitely a market for grown-up drama which we saw in droves during Burton and Taylor.

Moving onto something a bit more sedate now in the form of genealogy series Who Do You Think You Are? For me the programme is at its best when the celebrity subject doesn’t know anything about the ancestors they’re researching, and that was definitely the case in this first episode. The subject in question was Una Stubbs, most recently seen as housekeeper Mrs Hudson in Sherlock, who wants to know more about her paternal grandparents. Despite them being alive for most of her childhood, Una was never allowed to see them and she thinks this was because her mother found them particularly overwhelming. As she travels to York, she finds out that her grandmother Annie gave birth to her first son in the workhouse before moving in with granddad Arthur to have Una’s dad Clarence. She also learnt that Arthur worked for Rowntrees, a massive coincidence seeing as Una was at one time the Rowntrees girl and appeared in one of the first TV ads ever. Una then researched her great-grandfather Ebenezer Howard, founder of the garden city movement, who was someone she already knew quite a bit about. This second half of the programme was more history lesson than anything else as we learnt about Howard’s inspiration when creating Welwyn Garden City. While this second section of the show was interesting enough, I found that Una got more pleasure in learning about the relatives she had no idea about. Thankfully, Una herself was a delightful companion and I found her to be genuinely likeable throughout. Unlike other celebrities who appear on the programme, Una never broke out into floods of tears though did well up from time to time. Her family’s story was also able to fill an hour, which isn’t true of all of the episodes, and I was never bored while watching it. I feel that this tenth series of the programme has got off to a great start and I wonder if it can maintain that momentum going forward.

Something that will never be described as great is BBC3’s latest sitcom Badults. BBC3 definitely has a hit and miss policy when it comes to their comedies and for every Him and Her there’s a Some Girls. The basic premise of Badults is that it focuses on three old school friends who have never truly given up. The trio live together and spend their days drinking, squabbling and playing cut price board games. In fact the opening scene sees the three playing a cheap version of Monopoly where they are not to pass Goat and not to collect £208. If you didn’t laugh there then you weren’t going to laugh at anything else which included one of them attempting to create a fragrance that smelt of mouldy chops and another who had a bit of a gambling addiction. The main plot of this episode, which has been used before in many sitcoms, is that the gang accidentally draw out £5,000 from their joint account and end up spending it by accident. Crucially nothing that happens here is particularly funny even though the cast, who also wrote the show, think everything they’re saying is absolutely hilarious. The studio audience laughter gives the whole thing a cheesy vibe and made me feel like I was watching a cut price version of Two Pints of Larger and a Packet of Crisps. While you can say what you want about Two Pints, at least it had decent actors and characters you cared about, neither of these elements apply to Badults. When the funniest portion of the show involves Charles Darwin talking to you from a bank note, you know you’re in trouble.

Thankfully another programme proved that the British sitcom isn’t dead just yet as Sky One’s The Cafe returned for its second series. The programme takes us to Cyril’s, a cafe on the seafront at Weston-Super-Mare, which is run by Carol (Ellie Haddington) alongside her would-be writer daughter Sarah (Michelle Terry) and her interfering mother Mary (June Watson). The first series ambled along quite nicely and it looks like the second series will follow suit though there does seem to be an attempt to add a few actual stories. The first being the return of Sarah’s father and Carol’s ex-husband Phil (Robert Glenister) who returns to the area as a photographer for the local tourism guidebook. Phil’s return couldn’t have come at a worse time as Carol’s current beau Stan (David Troughton) was building up the courage to propose to her. Stan also has more troubles in his life as he’s assigned help on his allotments in the form of community service worker Jason (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith). But it seems that there is marriage on the horizon when Richard (Ralf Little) proposes to his girlfriend Ava (Carolin Stoltz) and she accepts. Though this is good news for most, Sarah is secretly upset as she always believed she and Richard would end up together. With a script written by Terry and Little, The Cafe is definitely one of the most amiable programmes of the year though I’m not sure if you could describe it as a sitcom. While there are funny moments, I wouldn’t particularly call this a comedy but at the same time there’s not much drama. Though I’d normally say a comedy was a failure if it didn’t make me laugh, there was something so likeable about The Cafe that it didn’t bother me too much. I find that the main characters are well drawn while Craig Cash’s direction really focuses on what’s important to each character. If I had one major criticism its that there are far too many characters in The Cafe, which without adverts is only 21 minutes long. I feel that if there were fewer characters than the programme would flow smoother and I think it would be just as fun. But overall, The Cafe is one of those shows that makes you feel warm inside and I think that’s a credit to both the cast and the crew.

Finally, I can’t leave without saying a few words about the final episode of Luther. Not only was this the final episode of series three but, for now at least, this was the final instalment of the show. Obviously episode three was truly shocking with Justin Ripley (Warren Brown) being killed off by vigilante murder Tom Marwood (Elliot Cowan). Even more shocking was the fact that Luther (Idris Elba) was arrested for Justin’s murder by Erin (Nikki Amuka-Bird) and George (David O’Hara). Obviously, they weren’t going to hold him for long and John was soon rescued by the returning psychotic serial killer Alice (Ruth Wilson). Alice reappeared to help John but at the same time it seemed that she wanted some sort of romantic relationship with him. This was a problem as John seemed committed to current girlfriend Mary (Sienna Guillory), even though she managed to get herself captured on two different occasions. Although Alice did prove that John was a hero rather than a villain, it transpired that not everyone would get out of the situation in one piece. I found this final episode of Luther to be an interesting one and I felt that it satisfied all of the programme’s fans. The return of Alice was a stroke of genius and Ruth Wilson absolutely revels in playing this completely deranged yet brilliant woman. Neil Cross’ script ramped up the ludicrous thanks to the Tom Marwood plotline and Idris Elba was absolutely fantastic as the powerful yet vulnerable Luther. To answer the question that has been posed at the end of every episode of Luther, so now what? Well at the moment plans are in motion for a film, which I hope won’t sully the legacy of the franchise too much. But I’m personally happy for this to be the last we see of John Luther for now and I feel that any more stories may indeed spoil what I thought was a decent ending to the series.

For more of my thoughts on TV 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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