Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Breathless ITV

Secrets, lies and passion smoulder beneath the glamorous and stylish world of the early 1960s, in the brand new drama Breathless.

Is that Don Draper? - No, it's Jack Davenport as Dr Otto Powell in Breathless. Photograph: ITV
Breathless; Trust Me I'm a Doctor – TV review
Yes, it's the 60s, and there's smoking, sex and even a Don Draper type – but don't call it the British Mad Men

Sam Wollaston

I saw the WikiLeaks movie, The Fifth Estate, the other night. Benedict Cumberbatch is fantastic but the film isn't, for several reasons, one of which is that it doesn't really work visually. It's a problem with a lot of drama about the 21st century. People now spend their entire lives staring into screens and communicating via text. Looking at a screen of people looking into screens isn't a very fulfilling experience. You have to go back to the 20th century to find people actually talking to each other, having old-fashioned touchy sex not Skype sex, expressing emotions not emoticons, and anger in a way that isn't snapping shut a laptop. It's maybe why there's so much period drama about.

In Breathless, ITV's latest period piece, we're in London in 1961. Of course, being about the 60s it's already been called the British Mad Men (as The Hour was, and that wasn't even set in the 60s). Med Men might be better, given it's a hospital drama. And Dr Otto Powell (Jack Davenport) is the Don Draper character – you know, suave, smoking (in every sense), Brylcreemed etc. He just has to walk into a room, and women spread their legs. Well, he is a gynaecologist.

Not just a devilish cad though, Dr Otto is also an unlikely champion of choice and performs abortions (still illegal) on the sly. "Otto, is that you, I've been such a silly muffin," he's greeted by a silly aristocratic muffin (scone?) with a extra unwanted bun you know where. He's kinda Don Draper meets Vera Drake, then.

There's no such complexity from Dr Powell's doctor colleagues. All male, of course, and all randy as Jack Russells; after a brisk, rude group round of the wards, they're all off doing their damnedest to hop on and off the nurses like they're the Routemasters plying Piccadilly. I say, are you headed for Eros, room for one more on top, eh?

So 1961 doesn't look very jolly for a woman. The music may be getting a little better, the dresses too. And this so-called sexual revolution is gaining some momentum. Who's it for, though? Maybe the pill, which was around then, I believe, wasn't in general circulation yet. Because if you join in the revolution, chances are you're going to get knocked up by some twit. And if you don't get to Dr Otto (who's the one you really want to be with) in time, you're going to have to spend the rest of your life in the twit's kitchen. Quite a cool, 60s kitchen, admittedly, possibly even with a few new electric appliances about the place depending on the salary of your twit – but he's still a twit, and his kitchen's still a kitchen.

Breathless is good at that; the 60s kitchens, the dresses, the Brylcreem and the buses, the Austins and the Morrises, the drink-driving. Also at the paradoxes of the age – the looking both forwards and backwards, the rampant sex and rampant sexism, the shiny new NHS and the lingering stuffiness etc. It looks great, and it captures an age, a fascinating one – key elements in any period drama. Plus there are no screens or texting. You can forget the modern world for an hour (except that you're probably tweeting along).

But then Downton Abbey does all that too, and Downton is posh froth. What's beneath the gloss of Breathless? I'm talking about the drama part of period drama – its ability to get a hold of you so you become emotionally tangled up, go on thinking about it and the characters, new people in your life, after the credits roll. And I'm not getting that. Perhaps it doesn't matter – you can admire the shine, without worrying about what is – or isn't – underneath. Just don't go calling it the British Mad Men.

Trust Me I'm a Doctor (BBC2) is brilliant; I learned so many interesting things. Like BMI – the fat thing not the regional airline – is rubbish. OK, not rubbish, but it can be misleading, as an indicator of health; you can be fat and fit. I can be fat and fit. I also don't need to drink two litres of water a day. Yay, water's boring.

I'm a bit confused about whether I should take a quarter of an aspirin a day: it seems to depend on which distinguished expert you listen to. I'm certainly going to wash my hands a lot more often and a lot more thoroughly because a third of us have faeces on them … NO! I don't, you do, go away. And I'm going to bed early, because sleep deprivation is linked to all sorts of horrible and life-shortening ailments. Put another way, Newsnight gives you cancer.

Breathless is so much more than a Mad Men rip-off
EVERYONE has been banging on – well, OK, not everyone, but quite a few people – about ITV’s new 60s drama Breathless, and how it’s allegedly ripping off the cult US series Mad Men.

By Mike Ward

Take it from me, these people are all idiots. And it's OK for me to say that because I was initially one of them.

Being quite a shallow human being, I took one look at the distinctive 60s style of the whole thing – the fashions, the cars, the home furnishings, the music, the opening titles, the fact that everyone was smoking their tar-caked little lungs out – and thought, yeah, d’you know what, I’m going to slag this series off as a Mad Men rip-off, I bet no other TV critic will think of that, aren’t I jolly clever and original and perceptive, huh?

But now that I’ve watched episode one again, properly this time – followed by previews of episodes two, three and four – I realise just what an ignorant ninny I was being. Breathless is, in fact, superb.

All right, so the influences from that American series are fairly transparent, but is that really such a big deal? Pretty much every show on television borrows ideas from other programmes, a huge proportion of them from America (Ricky Gervais’ comedies, for example, and Jonathan Ross’s chat shows, are massively influenced by their US counterparts).

Sod originality. What really matters is the substance. If superficial 60s snazziness were all Breathless had to offer us, the whole thing would have disintegrated within the first 20 minutes of episode one, like one of those tragic Bake Off trifles where the custard refuses to set.

Instead, it had me hooked. Britain was such a different place in 1961, the year the story gets underway, that the characters in Breathless, working in the gynaecological department of a leading London hospital, are having to deal with situations that seem fascinatingly alien to us.

Women weren’t allowed the new contraceptive pill, for example, unless they were married. And only then with their husband’s permission. Also, abortion was still illegal, which meant reluctantly pregnant women would resort to terrifying backstreet terminations, carrying all sorts of appalling risks.
The abortion thing is key here, because Jack Davenport’s character, charismatic surgeon Otto Powell, offers these desperate women a better alternative – still wholly illegal, and enough to get him struck off and banged up if word ever got out, but carried out safely, sensitively and responsibly.

It was when he defended his actions in episode one to nurse Angela Wilson (Catherine Steadman), who’d unwittingly found herself in attendance at one of these so-called “specials” of his – that we sensed there may be more to this guy than we’d initially given him credit for.

He insisted he was helping these people out of a nightmare they shouldn’t be forced to suffer – and he sounded very much as though he meant it.

“The law,” he told her, rejecting her protests “makes miserable lives and miserable women.”

So, OK, maybe he’s not just a rich, suave, self-satisfied womaniser after all. Otto may be smitten by nurse Angela (so am I, but that’s another story). And the more she rejects his advances – possibly because Otto sounds like a name better suited to a Labrador – the more he relishes the chase. In that sense, he seems just your average adulterous slimeball.

But the marriage that Otto is putting at risk, we’ll come to realise, isn’t quite right. Not so much in the sense that it’s a miserable one, more that it’s an act of some sort, an arrangement he and his wife Elizabeth have both agreed to, for reasons we’ve yet to figure out. And beneath their trappings of wealth and suburban respectability, they’re nursing a significant secret.
Elsewhere, we’ve just witnessed ninnyish junior consultant Dr Richard Truscott (Oliver Chris) marry pregnant ex-nurse Jean Meecher (Zoe Boyle). Jean has actually lost the baby on the morning of the wedding, but has insisted on going ahead with the ceremony – and not telling the groom about the miscarriage, terrified he’ll call the whole thing off. Will he eventually find out in any case? If so, will he go ballistic?

Richard and Jean’s is a relationship already weighed down with a whole heap of 60s issues. A working-class lass wedding a posh chap. A bride walking down the aisle when she’s supposedly up the duff. A nurse being forced to quit work because that’s what the rules used to demand if you got hitched to a doctor. All wrapped up in one merry little marital package.

Not so much another age as another planet. I shan’t go into any more detail about Breathless for now, just in case I give away some vital plot twist (you know, like I stupidly did when I mentioned the Martian invasion in next week’s Downton).

Suffice to say this is another cracking ITV drama – as gritty as it is stylish. And rest assured, the best is yet to come.

Review: Breathless – Series 1 Episode 2 – ITV

By Lina Talbot

Spoiler Alert: This review assumes you have already watched episode 2 of ‘Breathless’.

Female viewers must be feeling relieved after every episode of Breathless because things are different now. The control exerted by social codes and above all, by male authority over women, tied them down to being little more than kitchen maids and baby makers. Male viewers I hope will agree with Mr Powell, the debonair doctor with a dark past, that to keep women this miserable makes no sense.

For women to become properly liberated after the Second World War took a strangely long time. Men must have been very afraid, perhaps more so in the upper echelons where a certain family life needed to be on display. As the Powells’ marriage with one sprog and one housemaid demonstrates – concealing beneath it some terrible truth.

Natasha Little gives the most plausible performance as the fearful yet restrained Mrs Powell, whether supporting her husband and son or confronting Iain Glen’s sinister Chief Inspector Mulligan. It’s enjoyable stuff, so I am not going to “Wiki” what British commandos were doing in Cyprus in ’53 and spoil the mystery.

The other main characters have a touch of caricature about them. Even Jack Davenport as Powell overdoes the jolly father role. He also overplays his perplexity in the presence of Nurse Wilson (Catherine Steadman) after some very minor encounters. Perhaps she represents the future and the challenge facing these Sixties social paragons, but I may be over-interpreting.

The Enderbys (Shaun Dingwall and Joanna Page) are most watchable in their struggle to achieve higher status, though sadly they have a sexual problem to solve too. Baby making in these days is certainly fraught with difficulties. Happily, pills for some women’s problems are now available if you know the right chap, which former Nurse Meecher, now Mrs Jean Truscott (Zoe Boyle), does. As a modern girl struggling with Sixties society, she is not telling her husband and -  clap on the back for the man – neither is Powell. Or is he being all things to all people?

So the sexual charade of the Sixties continues, this time with Pippa Haywood popping up as the cheated on wife whom her husband wishes to quieten with a dose of Librium. He warns Mr Truscott (Oliver Chris), who hesitates to prescribe this: “We can go and see the top man.” Later his wife holds a scalpel over his mistress’s head as a different sort of warning – presumably the only justice available for the wronged woman. Of course her mention of Holloway immediately recalls Haywood’s recent outing in Prisoners’ Wives.

Then there is the romantic subplot. Mmm. It is silly… but despite that charming, as the nervous Powell waits amongst the plebs in a street cafe for the object of his desire. He is now aware of Wilson’s background and her actions in helping Miss Mulligan (Holli Dempsey) escape marriage. He doesn’t yet know that she is Jean’s sister, nor that Mulligan has him by the goolies.

Once again the scenes are lovely to behold. In the Truscotts’ new flat, for example, the camera beautifully presents both its décor and its metaphorical meaning as the cage for the new wife. Indeed the formidable exterior has the look of Wormwood Scrubs. The Sixties’ hospital ward rounds become comic parades, the private consultation almost an assignation.

I bet the writer and director Paul Unwin is having a ball. He has built up considerable expertise with medical drama, having co-created Casualty and worked on Holby City. Most recently he was lead director on the US network series Combat Hospital. No doubt he realised that people who watch medical drama are more interested in the social milieu of the protagonists, and this time he focuses on the milieu.

Though the dialogue still bothers me. It’s too unnatural – comic book even – I presume Unwin intends to mimic Sixties TV shows in the mould of Danger Man and The Avengers. With such a visual feast, a terse dialogue may be a blessing, providing the bon mots keep coming. This week Matron (Diane Fletcher) offers her reactionary guideline for women: “we need to be tamed.” OK, the blame does not lie entirely with the men then.

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