BBC Dramas

I seem to have fallen woefully behind in my reviewing over Christmas and the New Year; not because I was doing something massively exciting, or trudging through some kind of trauma, just because I didn’t get round to it. So I’ve gathered up a few reviews that can be broadly grouped into a “dramas on the BBC” category.

Last Tango in Halifax
Last Tango in HalifaxI loved the first season of this series, saying “There’s nothing stressful about Last Tango in Halifax, it’s easy going, amiable, sweet, funny and just utterly lovely”. Sadly the same cannot be said for the second series. It’s still a thoroughly good watch with interesting stories, characters and a realistic blend of humour and seriousness, but the loveliness was somewhat lacking.

There was a thread of unpleasantness running through the series in the way characters treated each other, and occasionally it escalated to outright viciousness and cruelty. I think the writers were trying to look at an interesting question – at what age in your life can you be selfish and where is the line of what you should do for your children and family? But that question became hard to see when it was buried under broken confidences, sanctimonious recriminations and critical gossiping behind people’s backs. I’m not saying that any of these responses were unrealistic, they may even have been justified, but it certainly wasn’t the easy going and lovely light drama that I fell in love with last year. It sort of all came good in the end, but I had to really push myself to keep watching.

Death Comes to Pemberley
pemberleyI’m not a big Jane Austin fan and would probably not have bothered watching just another remake of Pride and Prejudice, but the added interest of a murder mystery drew me in to this. Matthew Rhys (The Americans) as Mr Darcy helped as well. It turned out to be just perfect for the Christmas/New Year sofa slump, pootling along with enough suspense and drama to make you pay attention, enough comedy (from the excellent Jenna Coleman (Doctor Who) and Rebecca Front (The Thick of It) as Lydia and Mrs Bennett) to make you enjoy it and enough character to make you care. Even without fully remembering the characters I was still interested to see where their lives have gone, that things aren’t as simple as a happy ending, but they’re also not catastrophically awful. I actually left the three episode miniseries wishing it was coming back, which is more than I can say for any other Austin (or similar) work.

The 7:39
739I thought this was going to be a nice easy going romantic comedy/drama to ease me back into the reality of a new year. I mean it’s got a cast made up of lovely people – Olivia Colman (Broadchurch et al), Sheridan Smith (2 Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps) and David Morrisey (ok so he’s pretty horrible in Walking Dead, but he still seems a nice bloke). At first it matched my expectation, the characters were wonderfully vivid and interesting, the situations familiar enough to be completely relatable while different enough to be fascinating and the tone of the whole thing had a lovely humour to it. But then everything gets very serious, very quickly. As the inevitable consequences start to reveal themselves that comfortable familiarity suddenly feels like a punch to the stomach. And when Olivia Colman reacts… oh my word. No one does devastation like she does.

As with Last Tango, this is a truly excellent drama, invoking powerful empathy and reactions. But it’s not necessarily what I was wanting to watch. Rather than a nice gentle story of forming a connection on a train this becomes a hard hitting drama about how we can’t have everything that we want, some things exclude others. It’s beautifully constructed, written, and performed and that’s what makes it heartbreaking.

Dr Who
doctorwhoI realised that I’d normally write a bit about the Doctor Who Christmas special. Then I realised that I hadn’t written about the 50th Anniversary episode either. I won’t go into an epic piece about them, because my response to both was quite similar.

On the good side, I love the heart and soul of this current incarnation of Dr Who (Steven Moffat, Matt Smith, Jenna Coleman), it’s sweet and funny with a thread of darkness and strength running through it. I also love the little nods to fans, I squealed and clapped with delight at some of the references and the watching Smith and Tennant together was everything I hoped for.

But why can the plots not make more sense?! Everything is so complicated and intricate that I’m left neither understanding or caring what’s really going on. It starts off simple enough but then gets more and more elaborate. Every episode I watch and at the end am convinced that certain things didn’t work. On conversation with other viewers I sometimes see that I’d misunderstood, or missed a reference, or not seen an unspoken explanation, but I shouldn’t have to go out looking for ways for the story to make sense! All the good stuff is enough to keep me laughing and crying through an episode, but it NEEDS to be better. Peter Capaldi and the fans deserve better.

Ironically Adventures in Time and Space, telling the story of how Doctor Who actually made it to screen was an infinitely better story. It was beautifully story of aliens and time, but aliens in the sense that they were very different people to those who would normally be in this environment and time in the sense that it’s all entwined with the period and history. It was a fascinating story about people who cared and it was told with such love and attention to detail that I was completely enchanted.

Last Tango in Halifax and The Secret of Crickley Hall – Pilots

I’d not had a great day and I retreated to bed with my laptop to catch up on a couple of new BBC series thanks to the power of the almighty iPlayer. Miraculously, this turned out to be the perfect cure for my bad mood!

First up was Last Tango in Halifax. This is an easy going six-part series which is well and truly embedded in the ‘comfortable’ zone of watching. Celia and Alan were almost sweethearts at school, but it didn’t work out. They both lived their lives and raised a family, now 60 years later they reconnect via facebook and rather nervously arrange to have coffee. Each of their daughters are meanwhile having their own problems with their families.

There’s nothing stressful about Last Tango in Halifax, it’s easy going, amiable, sweet, funny and just utterly lovely. Anne Reid and Derek Jacobi are perfect as people who have plenty of experience of life, but are also adorably nervous about a first date. Sarah Lancashire and Nicola Walker are equally great as women living very different lives, but each just trying to make the best of everything. The whole thing is full of an easy going humour and charm that made me completely fall in love with it.

After that success I wasn’t optimistic that my luck would hold for the second new series of the evening, The Secret of Crickley Hall. Mother of three, Eve Caleigh, nods off while her son Cam is playing in a park, she wakes up and he’s gone. 11 months later, Cam is still missing and the family relocates to try and escape the pressure of the upcoming anniversary. Unfortunately they pick Crickley Hall, a house with a disturbing history, gradually revealed through flashbacks to 1943 when it was an orphanage with a very strict master. The history carries through to the present and the Caleigh family start experiencing Weird Stuff.

This is a shorter series, just 3 episodes, and is moving along a lot faster, well paced so that the tension is gradually built up, but doesn’t become unbearable. The Caleigh family is extremely likeable and believable, both in how they’re dealing with the grief of their missing son and how they approach the weird events of the house. Suranne Jones (the Tardis!) Eve believes that she has a psychic connection with her son which gets a little wishy-washy, but it’s well balanced by the way the rest of the family treat her – they don’t necessarily believe her, but they are complete supportive. Maisie Williams as the older daughter steals every scene that she’s in, much as she does as Arya in Game of Thrones. It’s impossible not to like this family, they’re smart and funny, tightly knit without being saccharine and they’re really doing their best to get through the terrible uncertainty and grief.

The period elements aren’t quite as strong. Douglas Henshall and Sarah Smart are stuck with some pretty hammy dialogue and they come rather too close to pantomime villains. Similarly Olivia Cooke as Nancy Linnet, the young teacher worried for the safety of the pupils comes across as a rather too perfect rescuer. But balanced by the extremely ‘real’ feeling modern sections, the flashbacks aren’t too bad. The whole thing combines into a sort of easy-going creepiness that might make you jump a couple of times and keeps you paying attention, but isn’t going to keep you up at nights.

Last Tango in Halifax is on Tuesdays and The Secret of Crickley Hall is on Sundays and both are available on iPlayer.

Other Reviews:
The Telegraph on Last Tango in Halifax – The ways in which this story of late love might have gone wrong were numerous, but with the help of beautifully nuanced performances from her cast, Wainwright steered an entertaining course between the Scylla of sentimental regret and the Charybdis of patronising caricature.

The Independent – [Last Tango in Halifax] triumphed because it wasn’t about old people or even elderly romance, but love. This (sentimental) 30-year-old loved every minute.

The Telegraph on The Secret of Crickley Hall – It all clipped along quite watchably, but – unpardonably for the horror genre – with no sickening sense of jeopardy or threat.

Den of Geek – The Secret of Crickley Hall is entertaining and involving stuff. Nancy and the Caleighs are such sympathetic leads that the horrors of Crickley Hall have a satisfying heft of consequence.