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Period Drama

Broadchurch

Wolf Hall

Broadchurch, ITV1; Wolf Hall, BBC Two

Dear Wolf Hall,

Alright my love? How’s the third week going? Ratings slightly down I hear? Me too. You get used to it. Listen, I’m writing because a little bird told me that you didn’t have much of a plot going on, and that you might be after one. Thing is, I’ve got quite a lot of them at the moment, so if you were wanting to borrow any then I reckon it could be good for both of us.

Let’s face it, we both look smoking hot. Me with my sunny seascapes and mysteriously cloudless skies, like an advert for Visit Dorset, and you with your lute-soundtracked stately homes and manicured lawns, like an advert for the lovechild of the National Trust and English Heritage. I really think we can come up with an arrangement that suits us both.

Oh, I should probably tell you a bit more about our range. We have numerous recycled plots, a couple of credible plots, a few plots rapidly losing their intrigue, awkwardly shoehorned-in plots relating to legal counsels’ backstories, and a slightly incongruous plot involving a unconvincing vicar dating a promiscuous hotelier. Take your pick!

Sincerely,

Broadchurch

Winner of four BAFTAs

***

Dear Broadchurch,

With regards to your proposition, I am afraid I cannot answer yes or no, rather you will have to deduce my response from my enigmatic facial expression.

That is all I have to say on the matter. I am a drama of few words.

Sincerely (or perhaps not),

Wolf Hall

Future winner of all of the BAFTAs

***

Dear Wolf Hall,

Ok, I’ll cut to the chase. I’m in a bit of a scrape. I have one murderer on the loose, and one about to emerge victorious from a dubiously conducted court battle, and I’ve only got three episodes left. You seem to be pretty skilled in making one episode go a long, long way. Plus, people really seem to like you. What’s your secret?

Sincerely,

Broadchurch

***

Dear Broadchurch,

First of all, my commiserations to you regarding the recent birth of the Latimer baby. I personally have a deep understanding of what the birth of a girl can do to the complexity of a plot, and from what you’ve said in your previous correspondence, that sounds like the last thing you need.

Secondly, I have noticed a distinct lack of fluffy animals in your drama. Three episodes in and I’ve had a puppy, several kittens, a white rabbit and a horse. You may want to consider this tactic – it might help with the declining viewing figures you alluded to in your earlier correspondence, as well as your concerns about likeability.

Sincerely,

Wolf Hall

***

Dear Wolf Hall,

Thank you for your advice, but as we are not a high-brow historical drama adapted from two Booker Prize-winning novels, we don’t feel we need to use such tactics to attract the attention of a generation raised on YouTube cat videos. We can do that just fine with our dramatic twists, and scenes involving a shirtless James D’Arcy.

Anyway, I was thinking that if we lent you a couple of plots, you might be able to loan us Mark Rylance for a bit. I heard his character was a lawyer, and he seems to be quite efficient in getting certain people to certain places – like Anne Boleyn to the King’s bed – and I reckon that talent could be extended, in our case, to getting the Sandbrook murderer into jail, with Joe Miller not far behind. I admit, there would be a couple of issues to resolve – primarily the fact that Rylance looks like he literally just walked out of a tudor painting – but this can be remedied with a quick hair trim, a wardrobe change, and maybe the cultivating of some unkempt stubble à la Alec Hardy. Speaking of, I might be willing to throw David Tennant into the bargain if it would tempt you.

Let me know what you think,

Sincerely,

Broadchurch

***

Dear Broadchurch,

I am afraid that I cannot give you a definitive answer either way. Rylance’s character goes where he pleases, looking mysterious in the process. It may be that he will take a trip to the West Country – as he has done so a number of times throughout filming in order to walk enigmatically around the gardens of a number of National Trust properties in that part of England. However, I am quite sure that the town of Broadchurch boasts no such landmarks.

With regards to the loaning of David Tennant, you are somewhat deluded if you think I will settle for anyone less than Olivia Colman.

Sincerely,

Wolf Hall,

BBC Two’s biggest drama for a decade

***

Dear Wolf Hall,

Three-time BAFTA award-winning Olivia Colman is strictly off limits. You give me no choice but to take my incredibly advantageous offer elsewhere.

Sincerely,

Broadchurch

ITV’s highest-rated weekday drama series since 2004

***

Dear Broadchurch,

I am sorry that I seem to have disappointed you. Had you been in your first series I may have considered your generous offer. Now, however, you are somewhat irksome and past it. The Catherine of Aragon of TV drama, shall we say.

Sincerely,

Wolf Hall

The Anne Boleyn of TV drama

***

Dear Mr Selfridge,

How are you doing? If you could find the time in your busy schedule to get back to me, I have an offer I am sure you will find most attractive.

Sincerely,

Broadchurch

Ps. It does NOT involve three-time BAFTA award-winning Olivia Colman

This term I get to ramble about television fortnightly in the form of a TV column for Varsity. Here are the first two. The first is the latest, and the second is now about two weeks out of date. So soz about that.

Less of the novel, more of the novels

From issue no. 776, published 31/01/14. Here’s the link.

Mr Selfridge

Last week the ebullient Mr Selfridge flounced back onto our screens. If you missed the relatively mediocre first season, Mr Selfridge is essentially what Downton Abbey would look like if Mary Portas were the producer. Strangely, the man behind the screenplay, Andrew Davies, is responsible for some of the best costume dramas to grace our screens: Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and the famous BBC Colin-Firth-in-wet-shirt adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Mr Selfridge may look as sumptuous, but when it comes to substance it pales in comparison. Perhaps Davies should stick to what he does best – adapting novels, rather than attempting to be novel. Adaptations trump vapid original representations of history (Mr Selfridge, Downton Abbey) for several reasons:

They actually have plots – not surprising, given they’re the work of storytelling greats such as Austen, Dickens and the Brontës.

They force you to read the original. I feel guilty about watching adaptations of novels I haven’t read, so I usually attempt to do so before they hit our screens. Who says TV doesn’t make you cultured?

You can pretend you’ve read the original. Obviously my well-meaning enthusiasm doesn’t always translate to action. But hey, no one need know, right?

They’re not all obsessed with ‘The War’. According to Julian Fellowes’ recent projects, history consists of WWI and the sinking of the Titanic. Unfortunately, at the end of episode one of Mr Selfridge, poor old Franz Ferdinand was shot again, which means we’re no doubt in for more sanitised depictions of trenches and wholesome representations of Home Front life.

They inspire debate. When dearly loved characters and plots are reconstructed on our screens, it gets people talking about the original text and why this new interpretation is completely unfounded/wonderfully understated.

Adaptations of classic novels have been thin on the ground lately. Perhaps these things come in waves – ITV had an Austen Binge a few years ago, around the time that the BBC were particularly enamoured by Dickens. Even so, there are plenty of lesser-known titles that have inspired some brilliant dramas in the last few years, primarily the BBC’s Parade’s End, based on the works of Ford Madox Ford, which saw Rebecca Hall and Benedict Cumberbatch give sensational performances. Yes, ok, it was partially set in the war, but unlike dear old Downton, 85 per cent of the script didn’t consist of references to this fact.

There’s good news for adaptation fans though – Davies has a six-part version of War and Peace in the works for 2015. I’d better get reading.

* * *

The Rise of the TV Detective

From issue no. 775, published 17/01/14. Not online.

Broadchurch

Maybe someone’s laced our tea, infiltrated the TV scheduling, or employed Derren Brown to hypnotise us on a street corner, but currently we are all infatuated with detectives. Investigateur extraordinaire Hercule Poirot may have said his final farewells last year, but there are a million more surreptitious sleuths lining up to take the place of the much-loved Belgian eccentric, sneaking stealthily into every available timeslot. There are, it seems, plenty more where Poirot came from (I’m talking figuratively here – they’re not all Belgian).

Subtle as they may be on screen, the plentiful presence of private eyes has not gone unnoticed. Quite the opposite – we can’t get enough of them. It’s not just the smooth Sherlock-types, but the complex Luthers and the whimsical Lewises too, not to mention the maternal, empathetic ones and the surly ones with heart conditions, à la Broadchurch’s Olivia Colman and David Tennant respectively. So smitten are we that the brains behind this year’s National Television Awards have created an entirely new accolade to accommodate them. Among those lurking in the ‘TV Detective’ category are Colman and Tennant, Luther’s Idris Elba and Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch. To quote the latter, the game is (very much) on.

It seems a shame, however, to have to compare characters similar by occupation and yet so different in every other respect. Will they be judged on crime-solving prowess or performance? If the award is ‘best detective’ then I’m going with Cumberbatch. If it’s on best performance, then I’d pick Colman (although it’s a close call). Yet pitting Colman and Tennant against each other is a shame too. Their characters’ dynamic was an important part of Broadchurch. It seems wrong to compare their performances when each complemented the other so well.

Subsequently, the drama performance category is looking a bit empty, even after clubbing male and female performances together. We’re left with the usual suspects: Smiths Matt and Maggie, and previous winner Miranda Hart. Perhaps the re-categorisation is understandable. Given our obsession, any of these nominees would surely be robbed of a win – and this time the crime-solvers would be the culprits.

Obviously, due to the nature of a public vote, the awards favour performances from actors in popular programmes – meaning standout performances in more niche offerings are likely to miss out. Consequently, my investigator-of-choice didn’t even make the longlist. Top Of The Lake was an exquisitely shot and scripted six-part drama that saw Det. Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) investigating the disappearance of a pregnant schoolgirl. Moss tracked Robin’s increasing fragility beautifully throughout, giving a devastatingly well-pitched portrayal of her subsequent emotional breakdown as her past caught up with her. It was a performance worlds apart from the frenzied brilliance of Cumberbatch, but every bit as captivating in its own right.

Picture: Guardian

Death Comes To Pemberley, BBC1 – read review on Varsity here

If Sherlock, Downton Abbey (last year) and Eastenders (most years) are anything to go by, we love a bit of dramatised death during the festive season. And we love a period drama any time of year. So take the cast of the mother of all period dramas, Pride and Prejudice, add a murder mystery, and set them against a backdrop of stately home porn in the form of the Chatsworth Estate, and you’re onto a winner.

Death Comes To Pemberley was an adaptation of the P. D. James novel of the same name, in which Austen’s beloved creations find themselves embroiled in a murder case involving infamous Regency love-rat, George Wickham. Early on, Wickham is seen dragging the body of Captain Denny through the woods at Pemberley, and the rest of this three-part drama was concerned with piecing together the chain of events leading up to that moment.

Despite the whodunit aspect, Death Comes To Pemberley still made time to explore more personal dramas, primarily the fight for the affections of Georgiana Darcy (Eleanor Tomlinson) between young lawyer Henry Alveston (James Norton) and Colonel Fitzwilliam (Tom Ward), now considerably more embittered since the events of P&P. We also saw some tension in the marriage of Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, as the two had trouble seeing eye to eye where Georgiana was concerned.

Anna Maxwell Martin was a marvellous Lizzie, more mature than previous incarnations, but still possessing the same spark and wit, shown to best effect in her exchange with the interfering Lady Catherine de Bourgh (soon-to-be-Dame Penelope Keith). Also worth noting is Jenna Coleman, who softened the simpering, showy Lydia by adding a refreshing fragility to Austen’s rather one-dimensional character. Matthew Rhys was a sober Darcy, but the strain caused by the return of Wickham in such unfavourable circumstances became clear throughout his performance. However, given their history, and the damage that Wickham’s dilemma could have had on his reputation, Darcy was surprisingly patient with his childhood friend – almost polite – which was not easy to swallow.

All things considered, the acting was stronger than the plot. The murder mystery was well paced and intriguing, but my parents managed to predict the denouement before the big reveal. (Not me, though. I’m a bit slow.)

When all was well again, the writers couldn’t resist a bit of period-drama schmaltz. “I’m so happy!”, laughed Lizzie, as Darcy spun her around in front of Pemberley’s Olympic-sized water feature. I would be, too, if I lived in that house.

Picture: Telegraph

Downton Abbey Christmas Special, ITV1

“Dear Matthew. I do miss him,” lamented Edith at the opening of this two-hour long slog of a Christmas special. Just in case we were having too nice a Christmas day, she was reminding us that, as confirmed last year, Downton doesn’t have to follow the same goodwill-to-all-men-including-slightly-sappy-characters theme that usually abounds in the festive season. Except this episode did exactly that. I’m trying to think of something that actually happened to move the plot forward, but lately Downton seems to have become a series of conversations between characters, rather than an actual drama. At the beginning of the episode, Mary had three suitors. Bates was a suspected murderer. Rose was enthusiastic and mildly irritating. Thomas was evil. The Americans were coming. At the end of the episode Mary still had three suitors. Bates was a confirmed murderer. Rose was enthusiastic and mildly irritating and mates with the Prince of Wales. Thomas was still evil. The Americans left. No one died. The end.

Last year we found ourselves in the Highlands, but this year we had to make do with London, presumably due to the disruption to train services caused by the floods. That, and Rose’s presentation into society, which brought most characters down south. And when I say most characters, I mean basically everyone. Even Molesley. I may be wrong, but I would’ve though someone would stay behind to mind the Abbey while the Crawleys were away. Y’know, water the plants, collect the post, feed the cat, that sort of thing. And perhaps (after Branson and Miss Bunting) make sure no one else was going upstairs to ‘enjoy the view down into the hall’ (nudge nudge, wink wink). But nope, apparently the London housekeeper’s being indisposed meant that the whole of Downton suddenly had to go down to London too. “Are you excited?” said Enthusiastic American Valet to Daisy on arrival. “I’m never excited,” replied Daisy, thus summing up every viewer’s reaction to this episode so far.

So what were the main things that happened in this episode in which nothing much happened at all? Edith moped around a lot, musing melancholically in a manner similar to Eeyore. Eeydith had good reason to be sad: her baby, the daughter of missing-and-probably-killed-by-Brownshirts editor, Michael Gregson, was living in Switzerland with adoptive parents, and she’d probably never see her again. For something she’s not meant to talk about, she seems to spend a lot of time talking about it. “I know we never talk about the baby,” said Violet, starting yet another conversation about the baby, “but I realise it must be on your mind constantly.” It might help if people stopped talking about it.

Not putting your baby up for adoption aside, the other moral of this episode seemed to be ‘don’t leave important and potentially incriminating articles in your pockets’. There was a charity sale for Russian refugees, and being the absolute pillar of society that he is, Bates offered up an old overcoat. Mrs. Hughes went through the pockets just in case, and what did she find? A train ticket from York to London for the date on which Mr Green popped his clogs after ‘falling under a bus’. Mrs Hughes went straight to Mary of course, who didn’t seem the least bit surprised. Bates is a murderer, she pretty much concluded. “You say it as if you already knew,” said Mrs Hughes. Oh come on, Mrs Hughes. LITERALLY EVERYONE KNEW. Even usually-oblivious-to-pretty-much-everything Robert knows that Bates is shady because a little bit later on he asks him if he knows ‘a man’ who can forge handwriting. Yes, I do know ‘a man’, says Bates nonchalantly, and gets the note done in a jiffy.

The note was one small part in a tediously complicated and ultimately pointless plot to retrieve a love letter sent by the Prince of Wales to a brunette aristocrat (who looked confusingly like another brunette aristocrat meaning I spent the first half of the episode trying to work out a) who was who and b) whether or not they were sisters) whilst various people were distracted by a game of poker or a trip to the theatre. In the end, the plan failed because the letter-thief (Sampson, the card shark from earlier this series – or was it last series? Oh God, I don’t know…) had the letter in his coat pocket. Luckily, seasoned criminal Bates worked this out and ‘helped Sampson with his coat’ before he left at the end of the evening, retrieving the letter, and thus exonerating himself in Mary’s eyes. Mary then burnt the train ticket. So essentially Bates got off murder by becoming a pickpocket. Ah well, like Robert said, it’s not stealing if the item in question has already been stolen. And apparently it’s not murder either, if your victim was a rapist. Downton has an interesting take on this whole ‘law’ thing.

Back to the ‘plot’. Martha Levinson was back! You know, the American grandma they made such a big thing about last year who turned up one episode, had a few spiky exchanges with Violet, and then left again. She did pretty much the same thing in this episode, except this time round she had her son, Harold, with her. Harold essentially spent the whole episode wondering round going ‘lolz’ at every archaic British tradition he came across. Please tell me I’m not the only one seeing the irony here. Everyone knows the USA have become infatuated with Downton and are now probably the only viewers that actually take it seriously. And yet the person who went around with their eyebrows raised, laughing at the ridiculousness of it all was American? Harold quite liked the food, though. He also took a shine to one of the brunette aristocrats – the other one this time (I think). Watch this space. (Unless he’s going to do a Martha and not appear again for another couple of series. If Downton even carries on that long. Which it inevitably will. Sigh.)

The script was as clunky as usual, for example in the conversation between Anna and Mrs Hughes about how Bates hated shopping. “It must be because he’s a man!” laughed Mrs Hughes, and Anna giggled. BECAUSE MEN DON’T LIKE SHOPPING. GEDDIT? Yeah, thanks. I think I’d pretty much got there. But then there were the absolute gems we’ve come to expect from Violet, the pinnacle of which was her response to former chauffeur Branson’s request for a dance: “I know I can trust you to steer.” Bravo.

There’s not really a lot else to talk about when it comes to the rest of the episode. Thomas did what he does best and in lurked in shadowy corridors with sultry backlighting. Eeydith did a bit more melancholic musing before hatching a not entirely failsafe plot to get her baby back to Downton. Mr Molesley helped Miss Baxter to stand up to Thomas. Daisy refused an offer to move to New York from Enthusiastic American Valet, letting Ivy go instead. And Anna prematurely decided that the next royal scandal probably wouldn’t involve the Crawley family. But that was before the Prince of Wales turned up to dance with Rose at her ball. Anna has the uncanny ability to foreshadow events by accident – let’s not forget the fateful “Mr Matthew can drive himself” line this time last year. Could another royal scandal involving Rose be on the horizon? Probably not. That would require something to happen, and as we’ve established, Julian Fellowes seems pretty against anything happening in Downton. What about Mary’s endless list of suitors? Well, it turns out Mr Pigsty is due to inherit a rather large country pile in Ulster! This changes things for Mary of course. But only because she knows they’ll be on the same page when it comes to their world view. Obvs. Nothing to do with the rather large country pile in Ulster. Not at all.

At the close of the episode, Downstairs went on an all-expenses paid trip to the seaside, apparently for a spot of innuendo bingo. Anna and Bates walked arm-in-arm on the beach. “Oh God,” grimaced the nation yet again, “please not another cringey Bates/Anna ‘romance’ scene.” Bates was annoyed that Anna hadn’t let him check his coat pockets before it was sold. How could she make it up to him? Apparently, by getting him a ‘penny lick’. In the immortal words of Mr Carson: “I don’t know how, but you managed to make that sound a little risqué.” Merry Christmas.

Can anyone smell pastry? (Picture: ITV)

Downton Abbey, ITV1

Review of last week’s finale, published in Varsity today. Online here.

“All life is a series of problems which we must try and solve,” pondered Violet to a melancholic Edith in this final episode. “First one, then the next, and the next, until – at last – we die. Why don’t you get us an ice cream?” And thus she summed up the raison d’etre of Downton Abbey in one neat little nugget of wisdom: endless drama, but never without cosy traditions.

This time, the cosy tradition was the annual bazaar. Cora – who was apparently in charge – sighed a lot and faffed around with lists whilst everyone else did all the work. As Downton’s least developed character, Cora appears to exist only to lie in bed with a tea tray making comments about other people’s business – except, of course when it’s her own pregnant daughter’s business, in which case she breezes around completely ignorant. Thank God for Rosamund and her newfound passion for French.

The resolution of the whole footman-kitchen maid love triangle/square/indeterminate polygon that has been inducing yawns all over the country since episode one, was fairly underwhelming. In the end, Ivy wasn’t interested in Jimmy or Alfred, Alfred regretted not being interested in Daisy, Daisy regretted Alfred not being interested in her earlier, and Jimmy was interested in nothing but downing punch at the bazaar. So having sat through all those squabbles week after week, in the end no one even got engaged or died. Downton, you disappoint. It did, however, leave room for a touching moment between Daisy and Mrs Patmore that revealed a maternal side to the perennially no-nonsense cook, and it was lovely to see Daisy do something other than mope behind potato peelings for once.

But lets talk about Bates and Mr Green. This week, Bates took a trip to ‘York’.

“What were you up to?” asked Anna, knowing full well that ‘York’ meant ‘London’.

“This and that,” replied Bates casually, but his eyes told a different story. “Nothing major,” they glinted. “Went shopping. Bought some hair wax. Murdered a valet. Y’know, this and that.” No one can do murderous nonchalance like Bates.

Of course, we didn’t know he’d murdered Green. Not until the end of the episode when it turned out Green had been run over by a bus. Then we were pretty sure he probably had. To be honest, I’m still 100% convinced that Bates murdered his first wife, so it wouldn’t surprise me if said bus was constructed from pastry and laced with arsenic (see series 3).

Dramatic death aside, it was a fairly tame end to a series that, in every aspect, has been a huge improvement on the last. Primarily, it’s been nice to see a different side to Mary. Bitchy Mary had got a bit dull, likewise Sappy Wife Mary. It was touch-and-go whether we were going to have to endure a whole series of Mourning Mary, but luckily she transformed fairly quickly into Kick-ass Businesswoman Mary, who rejected doting suitors, rescued pigs, had mud fights, and suddenly inexplicably knew how to scramble an egg. By the time the final episode ended, she’d already rejected another two advances from Gillingham and Blake. I think we can guarantee they’ll both be back for Christmas dinner.

Picture: Telegraph

Peaky Blinders, BBC2

Another review for Varsity. Find the original here.

Aside from the usual lectures, supervisions and (ahem) ‘keeping up with my dissertation’, the main focus of my attention in the past two weeks has been attempting to persuade as many people as possible to catch up on Peaky Blinders. It seemed that no one really knew what I was talking about when I asked if they’d been watching the series. It’s a shame, because, as the breath-snatching finale confirmed on Thursday, this really has been a drama worth watching.

Whilst the finale didn’t quite match up to the brilliance of episode five, it is still every bit as classy, and every bit as tense. It opens on the morning of the Peaky Blinders’ final confrontation with Billy Kimber – and the gang are being rallied for battle by their leader, Tommy (Cillian Murphy).

Divine bone structure aside, Murphy has carried the series effortlessly in his portrayal of the damaged and disillusioned protagonist, conveying Tommy’s fierce love and sense of responsibility for his family whilst maintaining a cold, indifferent exterior. It’s moments when this facade softens that make us sympathetic to Tommy, despite his dubious and often brutal behaviour; but his attitude can switch in a millisecond. His scenes with Grace in this episode perfectly display this fluidity – tenderness turns to realisation and regret in the hardening of a gaze, a clenching of the jaw.

The crux of this episode was of course the Western-style showdown with Kimber and his men. But Aunt Pol’s altercation with Grace was far more threatening in its subtlety. Helen McCrory as Aunt Pol sheds all the vulnerability she displayed earlier on when revealing the fate of her children to Ada, pours a drink, and delivers ruthlessness-with-a-smile to a defenceless Grace. It’s these one-to-one scenes – including Tommy’s icy confrontations with Inspector Campbell (Sam Neill) – that make Peaky Blinders such a compelling watch.

Grace herself (Annabelle Wallis), who up until now has been harder to read than James Joyce, finally seems to show some genuine remorse. ‘Tommy, I’ve done something terrible to you,’ she whispers through her tears, as it’s revealed that Tommy’s plans have been foiled. I almost felt sorry for her. But it’s testament to Wallis that we’re left doubting Grace’s sincerity right until the very end.

The cliffhanger at the close of the episode has stirred mixed feelings amongst viewers. Generally, I prefer definite endings to dramas – but if it means we’re going to get a second dose of Tommy & Co. then I’m willing to let it slide. Beautifully shot, impeccably acted (despite a few questionable accents), and with a script that makes Downton Abbey sound like the Teletubbies, Peaky Blinders has been one of the strongest dramas the BBC has delivered in a while.

When it came to my persuasive efforts I’m pleased to say that one friend ended up cramming in five episodes over a period of three days. The series is still online for a couple of days – I urge anyone else who’s missed out to do the same.

Mary in mourning (Picture: The Guardian)

Another Varsity review. This is the slightly extended version before I cut out bits to get the word count down. Read the concise version here.

Downton Abbey, ITV1

It wouldn’t be Downton Abbey if early on we didn’t have the customary time-passes-really-rather-quickly-in-this-programme dialogue.

‘It’s a changing world,’ laments Molesley Sr.

‘You don’t have to tell me that,’ replies Violet, pensively. (But Julian Fellowes clearly felt we needed reminding.)

Because in case you hadn’t picked up on it from the endless pre-series promotion and considerable abundance of finger waves, the inhabitants of Downton Abbey now find themselves in the Roaring Twenties. All except Mary (Michelle Dockery), apparently, who spends her time gazing desolately out of windows and occasionally descending the staircase like a beautiful version of Miss Havisham carved from alabaster. The reason being, of course, the untimely death of her husband Matthew. Dockery plays the part of a walking talking ice block throughout most of this 90 minute episode, not even thawing when cradling her tiny son, George, in her lily-white arms.

There’s a lot of talk of George: ‘What about George?’ ‘I’m interested in George.’ This is because George is very important. George is The Heir. And we’re reminded of this fact a lot. After a while, I found it more entertaining to imagine that everyone was actually talking about Prince George. It turned the Granthams from landowners preoccupied with inheritance to Hello-reading monarchists.

Branson (Allen Leech) wants Mary involved in the management of Downton, but Robert (Hugh Bonneville) wants to keep her ‘safe’; wrapped up like a piece of fine china. Nevertheless, intervention from the indomitable Violet (Maggie Smith), and a pep talk from Carson (Jim Carter) mean that by the end of the episode Mary has swapped black for lilac and is holding court amongst a dozen farmers. Well, she was never one to listen to her father. I sincerely hope that the rest of the series will centre around this new Power Mary as she storms round the estate in a sharp suit and killer heels, juggling her career in estate management with being a mum to baby George – sort of like a 1920s Sheryl Sandberg. (Possibly with a thriving carpentry business on the side, should she decide to act on Branson’s recommendation…)

What of the other characters? Thomas (Rob James-Collier) is as gloriously bitchy as ever, looking for a replacement nemesis after O’Brien’s surprise departure. His new target, Nanny West (Di Botcher), doesn’t last long, though. She departs in what is arguably the most dramatic scene in an otherwise sluggish episode, paving the way for yet more scheming.

Meanwhile, Edith’s editor beau (Charles Edwards, who looks disconcertingly like a younger version of runaway bridegroom Anthony Strallen) is trying to persuade her to go abroad with him so that he can divorce his mad wife and marry her instead. However, his proposed destination is interwar Germany, which I imagine isn’t the most romantic of places. We also saw the return of Edna Braithwaite (the shady maid who tried to hit on Branson last Christmas, played by MyAnna Buring), and there was cautionary tale about excessive alcohol consumption: very apt as Freshers Week sweeps the country.

Judging by this episode alone – in which the introduction of an electric whisk was a major source of drama – Downton doesn’t look set to emerge from the rut it found itself in during last series. The preview for next week looked a bit more promising in the scandal stakes. Nevertheless, if we’re going to return to series one standards then we need about 500% more illicit affairs, 200% more backstabbing and a lot more screen time from Violet.

Cillian Murphy as Tommy Shelby (Picture: Digital Spy)

This coming term I am TV critic for Varsity, one of Cambridge’s student newspapers. I’ve already reviewed Strictly Come Dancing and new BBC drama Peaky Blinders, both of which can be read below.

Peaky Blinders, BBC2

Peaky Blinders is set in post-World War I Birmingham, but it has the feel of a Western. It opens with Cillian Murphy (occupying the position of Primetime BBC Cheekbones whilst Benedict Cumberbatch is away) riding on horseback through a filthy slum. Men, women and children scatter as he approaches, whilst drums thud in the background and a lonely viola plays a haunting solo. Murphy cuts a menacing figure as Tommy Shelby, the kingpin of the Peaky Blinders- so called because of the razors stitched into the peaks of their flat caps.

Tommy is a compelling character. He received medals for gallantry in the war, but now he’s fixing bets and hiding stolen ammunition. He’s treated with reverence and wariness by those who know who he is – which turns out to be almost everyone. Whilst his stony gaze hints he isn’t to be crossed, we glimpse moments of compassion, particularly in his treatment of his shell-shocked friend, that suggest there is more to this character than meets the eye.

The drama is heavily stylised. The action is painted in muddy browns and earthy greys so that when colour does appear it stands out and sticks in the memory: red powder billowing through the air; blood spatter on pale skin. This technique is used to great effect with the arrival of the enigmatic Grace Burgess (Annabelle Wallis). She appears dressed in vivid green and strolling calmly down a mucky, dilapidated street in which she is so clearly out of place. “Are you a whore?” asks Tommy, in a somewhat unconventional introduction. “’Cause if you’re not, you’re in the wrong place.”

This is a violent world where the power balance is held in place by bribes, blackmail and murder. However, the arrival of Northern Irish Inspector Campbell (Sam Neill) threatens the fragile order. A ruthless Javert-like character, he has been sent to rid Birmingham of gangs, communists and the IRA. While I’m on the subject of communists, we’ve seen the ‘sister has affair with man holding controversial political views’ in many a drama before (Downton Abbey, anyone? Upstairs Downstairs?) so this aspect of the storyline didn’t exactly put me on the edge of my seat.

Nevertheless, there’s a lot of potential in Peaky Blinders. A nice bit of intrigue has been set up involving stolen guns, and I’d hazard a guess that something is going to happen between Tommy and Grace, signalled by the lingering gaze they shared mid-episode. The fact that she (perhaps predictably) turns out to be more than just a barmaid with a pretty voice might make things more interesting though. Overall, then, Peaky Blinders is definitely one to stick with.

Strictly Come Dancing, BBC1

I have a confession to make. I’ve never actually watched Strictly Come Dancing; I’ve always been more of an X Factor girl. So when the request to review the launch show for the new series dropped into my inbox, I must admit my heart sank a little. How was I going to write a decent view of such a well-loved show, having had no experience of previous series? Then I realised – that’s kind of the point of a review, right? An impartial and carefully considered evaluation of a piece of culture. I therefore present to you the first impressions of a Strictly newbie.

Actually, my first impression was that I might not be so far from The X Factor after all. There were the same cheering crowds, pyrotechnics, and judges arriving in swanky forms of transport. I got the feeling everyone was rather excited. They even did a dance to The Pointer Sisters to prove it. So far so good.

Now to the contestants. They range from TV presenters to rugby players via soap stars, a Hairy Biker and Vanessa Feltz. Also in the mix is noughties dance floor murderer Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Dragon Deborah Meaden and former pro-golfer Tony Jacklin.

I will say that for a show in which pretty much nothing happens, it managed to be fairly entertaining. The revealing of couples, however, could have been done in half the time. Admittedly the repetitiveness of this segment was diminished slightly by interspersing the announcements with a lively performance from Jessie J and the return of last year’s winner, Olympic gymnast Louis Smith and his partner Flavia. Their sparkling Charleston was the highlight of the show – which does suggest that it might be worth persevering with the series (or ducking back in when it gets to the final six).

Still, the end of the episode dragged. Former Bond Girl and current contestant Fiona Fullerton proclaimed that she had been ‘watching this series for ten years!’ and I think I might know how she feels.

I started to flag at Rod Stewart’s performance but soon after it was (to quote Brucie) ‘the moment you’ve all been waiting for!’ No, not the end of the show, but a group performance in which the contestants and their partners strutted their stuff for the first time. I’d love to finish off with suggesting a favourite to win, or making some savvy statement about the ones to watch. However, I’m not going to flatter myself by pretending I have any idea. I will say, though, it’s probably not going to be the Hairy Biker.

The reviews on Varsity can be found here and here.

Mr Selfridge, ITV1

To be honest, if it wasn’t for the fact that it offers mindless procrastination for a Monday afternoon when I should be writing an essay, I doubt I’d still be watching Mr Selfridge. And now that Towie‘s back to perform this particular function, I do wonder if it’s worth it.

Mr Selfridge is probably one of the blandest and most obvious period dramas I’ve watched in a good while. And that includes The Paradise, which, having watched for roughly half an hour, I get the impression was just the same thing except without adverts, meaning it automatically wins in the level-of-interest stakes. Mr Selfridge essentially takes every single period drama cliché you can think of and churns out the same product week after week after week. I’ve taken to watching each episode with a particular formula in mind, and seeing if it fits. Because this is obviously what you were missing in your life, I’ve reproduced the formula for the Average Selfridge Episode (ASE) below:

ASE = rv + bp + (RG±m) – AS + 2fe + mp

Humour me and allow me to elaborate.

1. rv = renowned visitor. Every Mr Selfridge episode revolves around the visit to the store of a famous guest. So far we’ve had Anna Pavlova, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sir Ernest Shackleton to name but a few. It’s like the writers can’t function without the same framework every week: famous person visits store; Selfridge family gets excited; windows are created in honour of said celebrity, giving Agnes and French Guy a chance to get frisky over window-hangings; an event is held featuring the celebrity; someone turns up who shouldn’t (Ellen Love, ghost wife, needy artist); scandal ensues.

I’m making predictions for who the guest will be next week. Probably someone culturally relevant for the time period, but it would be way more interesting if the credits rolled, the doors opened and Selfridge stood there baring his substantial set of teeth (see 5.) and annouced: ‘Today we will be joined by Lady Gaga!’ In fact, they should turn it into some kind of reality show in which celebrity guests have to see how far through the episode they can get without falling asleep/getting hit on by French Guy. That would be FAR more entertaining.

2. bp = borrowed plot. There are a lot of these, but the one that made me guffaw with incredulity the most was the whole ‘affair with the artist’ debacle . Edwardian aristocratic American woman meets young working class artist; he shows her his drawings and she agrees to let him paint her in secret. And then they end up kissing. And American woman is called Rose. Let’s see now, where have I seen this before…? All I’m saying is it’s a good job you don’t get icebergs in the National Gallery…

3. R = relationship of the week, G = gooseberry of the week. The two work together to create the blandest and most predictable sequences of events possible. Obviously French Guy and Agnes were bound to get together, leaving Victor as the gooseberry. Obviously French Girl was then bound to come back, making Agnes the gooseberry. And prediction for next week: Mr Grove will continue to pursue Doris, making Miss Mardle the gooseberry. (It’s ok, though. She’s going to join the Suffragette movement which, according to Miss Ravilious is an antidote to gooseberryism and general loneliness. Also I just IMDB’d Miss Mardle, and in real life she’s the long-term partner of Martin Freeman. So really she’ll be fine.)

R often involves Mr and Mrs Selfridge, leading to inevitable m = marital problems. (Unless of course they both contribute to R, in which case they’re happy and so the value for m is negative, not positive. Something like that anyway. I was never a maths person.)

4. AS = Actual Scandal. There’s usually one per week, and they make the storylines vaguely interesting. For example the car crash, Agnes’ drunk dad, Miss Bunting’s train incident. But they’re still a bit, well, obvious. Let’s compare these moments of scandal to those in Downton Abbey (pre-series 3 when it started to be actually rubbish, not just endearingly rubbish). I’m pretty sure that before Downton we’d never seen a gay love affair between a duke and a footman feature in the same series as a Turkish diplomat dying in a Lady’s bed. And unfortunately Downton pipped Mr Selfridge to the post on the whole car crash thing as well. To add insult to literal injury, in Downton‘s crash someone actually died. Sorry, Selfridge.

5. fe = facial expressions, specifically those of Mr Selfridge (Jeremy Piven). This value is multiplied by two because he only has two: that of a lonely walrus for when he’s disappointed – think mournful eyes and excessively downcast mouth, accentuated by the shape of his beard – and that of a toothpaste commercial frontman for his press moments – his impossibly white teeth bared in a unceasingly upbeat grin. I’m surprised he doesn’t strain his jaw. Maybe that’s when the walrus look comes out.

6. mp = moralistic pontificating. We’re not quite at Lark Rise to Candleford level yet (by far the worst culprit), but we’re getting there. ‘Stealing is bad; treat your staff well; I shouldn’t have acted so stuck-up; if only I’d been a better friend’. Blah blah blah. Don’t get me wrong, I agree with all of these statements. But morals do not good TV drama make. Imagine if Benedict Cumberbatch suddenly paused, turned to camera, and explained why what Moriarty was doing was wrong halfway through an episode of Sherlock. Would he do that? No. Because a) it would ruin any kind of tension and b) I’d like to think that we can all work out that stealing/letting down a friend/strapping a bomb to someone are pretty bad things to do.

And that’s the formula. So far, it hasn’t failed. I’m kind of disappointed really, considering the series is written by Andrew Davies, the man behind Pride and Prejudice and Bleak House, two of my favourite TV dramas, like, ever. Maybe he should just stick to adaptations… Anyway, I welcome any suggestions of participants for my new reality TV project, Stranded in Selfridges. Please leave recommendations below.

Lucas Romer (Rufus Sewell) and Eva Delectorskaya (Hayley Atwell)

Restless, BBC1

I found out about this dramatisation of William Boyd’s eponymous novel a while ago, because it was being filmed in my home-from-home, St John’s College in Cambridge. (Unfortunately, I wasn’t around at the time of filming, and I’m now disappointed to have missed Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) cruising around college in her ’70s get-up.) Anyway, knowing it was to be televised at Christmas, I decided I’d read Boyd’s novel beforehand. This sort of half went to plan. In fact, when part one went out last Thursday, I’d managed to read, without realising, up to almost the exact point that the episode ended. ‘Yep,’ I thought, feeling smug as the credits rolled, and nothing critical had been revealed that I hadn’t already read in the book, ‘I’m clearly psychic.’ Then I remembered that part two was to be aired the next day, meaning I’d have to read the other half of the book in one day, at the same time as socialising with relatives at a post-Christmas family gathering. Needless to say, that didn’t happen. I eventually finished it a couple of days later, and watched it a few days after that, which is why this review comes a little late. I contemplated not writing it at all, but it was drama of a very high quality so I changed my mind – better late than never, eh? (It’ll still be on iPlayer for a couple of days. Unless you’re reading this way later, in which case it won’t. Soz.)

So, anyway. Restless begins with Ruth Gilmartin (Michelle Dockery), discovering that her ageing mother Sally Gilmartin (Charlotte Rampling) is not in fact Sally Gilmartin, but Eva Delectorskaya, a Russian emigrant turned wartime spy, who now, for various complicated reasons, fears for her life . As I’ve mentioned before, I love a good spy drama, and this one didn’t disappoint. Throughout the two parts (each an hour and a half) the action hops from country to country and switches between the 1940s and 1970s, as Ruth begins to discover more and more about her mother’s past.

Ruth is enlisted by her mother to track down Lucas Romer ( Rufus Sewell and later Michael Gambon) Eva’s former boss and former lover . Dockery was believable in the role, but Ruth’s stubborn and haughty nature was not unlike that of Dockery’s best-known character, Downton Abbey‘s Lady Mary. It would be nice to see Dockery play a more mellow character in the future.

Hayley Atwell as the young Eva was delightful  She mapped the transition from an ordinary woman grieving a beloved brother, to a fully-trained spy convincingly, displaying a headstrong but sophisticated and cool-headed exterior, whilst also revealing an endearing fragility at certain moments. In particular, her panic on realising Romer has left her in Prenslo, and later her delayed response to her demeaning experience with Mason Harding spring to mind.

The screenplay for Restless was written by Boyd himself. There were parts of the original novel that weren’t dramatised; for example lot of Ruth’s background with her son Jochen’s father, Karl Heinz, and her daily life as an English tutor to foreign students, were not translated to the screen, which is a shame because it would’ve allowed Dockery more opportunity for character development. It would also have made Ruth’s confrontation with Karl Heinz a little less incongruous. But in terms of time constraints, the right bits were cut. Interestingly, Boyd chose to alter certain aspects leading up to the climax. Without giving too much away, Eva’s altercation with Romer during the air raid does not occur in the novel. However, Boyd’s decision to include this encounter allowed us to better understand Eva’s feelings of betrayal, something that I felt was lacking in the novel. After all, Eva had earlier declared her love for Romer, and Atwell conveys her heartbreak beautifully in this scene.

Sewell is also excellent in the part of Romer. He has a certain magnetism that makes his hold over Eva seem completely conceivable, but there’s also something untrustworthy about his eyes (kind of similar to Damian Lewis in Homeland). I did find it hard to connect this Romer with the later incarnation, though. Gambon seemed not to have the same sense of quiet danger as Sewell, instead seeming merely unpleasant rather than threatening. Rampling on the other hand was very convincing as an older Eva, displaying similar alertness and elegance to Atwell, but with undertones of weariness brought about by a life spent always looking over her shoulder.

This is most poignant in the final scene, as Ruth watches her mother surveying the woods behind her house through a pair of binoculars, even after she is seemingly no longer in danger. The not-completely-satisfying ending perfectly captures the sense of paranoia and restlessness that Eva has lived with for most of her life, and will presumably continue to live with for the rest of it.