Thursday sees the start of ITV’s glossy new drama Breathless. The series, set in 1961 follows the work of gynaecologists in a world where abortion is still illegal and the pill is a revelation. On set in March I chatted with actor Jack Davenport about his role as Otto Powell and what drew him back from America to work on the show.
You’ve been in America for a while, what’s it like being back on home turf?
Well everyone’s got British accents which is unnerving. It’s basically the same. There are roomfuls of skilled professionals who point cameras at us while we jump around in rented clothing so it’s the same process.
What drew you to Breathless?
When I read the first three pages I thought “Oh no”. I thought it was just a medical procedural set in the sixties. There are some great procedurals out there, and clearly there’s a big appetite for them but they’re not for me. I don’t watch them, and as I rule of thumb I think you shouldn’t do something if you don’t think you’d watch it yourself. Suddenly on about page four I found myself thinking ‘oh, this isn’t what I thought it was at all.’ Of course it is set in a hospital and there is obviously a medical component to it, but the choice of period and the area of medicine allows you to make a broader sociological point about women and their changing place in society. There are all sorts of things this show is able to explore that is far beyond hysterectomy of the week. That’s not what this is about.
How would you describe Otto?
I would say superficially he’s a very successful, respectable member of his community and profession. He has enormous status in his world. He understands the full limits of his powers and he uses them in ways that are often unconventional.
Does he ever cross the line?
Oh God yeah. Both personally and professionally. It’s up to the audience member to decide where they stand on him really.
So you didn’t have to worry about learning a lot of medical jargon?
No. There isn’t that sort of nightmare dialogue where you have no idea what you’re talking about and say it really quickly. I played a particle physicist once, I was meant to be one of the cleverest people in the world and I’ve never said more stuff where I had no idea what I was on about.
Was there anything about the period that surprised you?
When people think of the sixties they think of hippies and Jimi Hendrix. Actually 1961 is barely the sixties. The Beatles haven’t even turned up yet, and when they do they’re all wearing suits. We’re actually in a much more formal world than you’d think. People talk slightly differently and their respect for social structures is much more in place. The Pill only just arrived in 1961, abortion was still illegal.
What is Otto’s life like outside of his professional commitments?
Well I think you begin to realise that whilst outwardly his family life looks solid and respectable, it isn’t quite what it seems. Elizabeth and Otto are fairly flawless social operators but situations arise that test that.
What do you think of the state of UK TV at the moment?
Well, it feels like the appetite for reality television is going slightly. I remember when the first series of Big Brother happened and it really did feel like an interesting social experiment. It’s become a sort of freak show now and there’s a lack of innocence to it. I think people have got sick of that. We have been in a rather golden age of American television over the last ten or twelve years which has raised the bar. We’ve made good dramas throughout my working life in Britain and I think we were slightly dismissive of American television, perhaps justifiably but there’s been a turn. Something like Mad Men, which is a wonderful show gets small figures but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t exist because it’s a really high quality programme and there is an audience who wants to watch it.
Breathless begins Thursday 10th October at 9.00pm on ITV.