Varsity reviews

From Varsity issue no. 779, published 25/04/14. Here’s the link

TheGoodWife (1)

I must confess, I haven’t watched any new TV in a while. I’ve finally succumbed to an affair with Netflix (specifically The Good Wife) but with a dissertation-shaped elephant in the room, all the series I’ve been meaning to watch (Rev., The Crimson Field, Jamaica Inn) have sidled past silently, with far too many episodes stored up on iPlayer for me to have any hope of catching up. A couple of months ago, I wrote about the dangers of Netflix. Now I’ve changed my mind, and I’m about to tell you what you want to hear: contrary to popular belief, Netflix is made for exam term.

First and foremost, Netflix provides respite. Sometimes you just need a break. But what do you do when everyone else is revising and you’ve already caught up on the latest episode of Game of Thrones? Netflix is there at all hours to comfort you.

Crucially, it’s also flexible. If you start watching a current drama, you’re completely at the mercy of schedulers. People say binge watching is dangerous, but catching a drama before it falls off the iPlayer cliff and into the underworld of unwatched and unreachable episodes requires a level of commitment that just isn’t realistic in exam term. You can also guarantee the final episode will be scheduled the night before your first exam – the world is cruel like that. But Netflix is kinder. It doesn’t mind if you’ve been away for a while: the episodes are all still there waiting for you when you get the chance to return.

Netflix also keeps you sane. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that in exam term every conversation, no matter how it starts, will always end up being about exams. You can even apply a kind of exam-term Bechdel Test: 1) Are there ever two people in a room? Yes, at mealtimes. 2) Do these people talk to each other? Yes, when they don’t have food in their mouths. 3) Do these people talk to each other about something other than work?

Uh oh. Test failed at the final hurdle. The only two places you can go to escape this manic revision/dissertation-based conversation are a) home or b) Netflix. Home is far away, and probably expensive. Netflix is just a click away. Honestly, the fact that Alicia Florrick doesn’t stop halfway through a trial and express panic about whether the preface is included in her dissertation word count is more of a blessing than I can put into words.

Okay, so I’ll admit, this column is basically an elaborate justification for renewing my Netflix subscription at the worst point possible. But I think I’ve argued my points well. I have a feeling I won’t be saying the same about my first practice essay.

From Varsity issue no. 777, published 14/02/14.


Nightmare on Netflix

Let’s talk about binge-watching, the condition that involves losing a few days of your life to a television drama. Last August Kevin Spacey heralded it as the future of television, claiming audiences were no longer prepared to wait a week for a new episode when they could just as easily watch three more there and then.

There’s also the counter-argument: television viewing is a shared experience. It’s about watching a show then discussing it avidly for the next week; look to Broadchurch as a prime example – and isn’t Downton Abbey just an excuse to get together for bit of an eye-roll? Not nearly as many people would watch it if whole series were available on demand. Broken jam jars and scheming under-butlers aren’t enough to sustain a proper binge. That was Spacey’s point, actually. He claimed that the Netflix format helps to nurture quality dramas that have longevity. He cited The Sopranos and Breaking Bad as examples of productions that reached their pinnacle only by their third or fourth season. Dramas like these are the future, he argued, and their place is online.

Great. I’m all in favour of an abundance of quality drama. The problem is, I’m rubbish at binge watching. Ridiculous, I know. How can you be rubbish at sitting motionless in front of a screen for the best part of five hours? You can’t. But it’s not the watching I’m having trouble with. It’s the getting started.

It being the penultimate term of final year, I decided it was about time I renewed my Netflix subscription. I’d had an epiphany whilst half-heartedly procrasti-watching a mediocre episode of Mr Selfridge: I could be enjoying a truly decent drama. Off to Netflix I went. I was going to watch The Good Wife. I’d also heard great things about Orange Is The New Black. But realistically how long could I dodge conversations about Breaking Bad? Likewise House of Cards? Then again, The Bridge was meant to be fantastic. I panicked and wound up watching Tangled instead. A couple of days later, I took to Facebook to solve my dilemma. To which, I asked, should I sell my soul? Naturally, five people suggested six different dramas, with one adding helpfully that ‘Breaking Bad will ruin your degree.’

I was back to square one. My inner-finalist knew I should only commit to one. I just couldn’t decide which would cause the least damage. That’s the advantage of Mr Selfridge, you see: it’s controlled viewing. Taken once a week with dinner, and middling enough to prevent addiction. So I think I’ll steer clear of the binge – until June, that is. Maybe being indefinitely unemployed won’t be as bad as I’d anticipated.

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.


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: Radio Times

Sherlock – BBC1. Read the review on Varsity here.

That’s it then. Sherlock has gone as quickly as it came. Quicker, maybe – it got off to a bit of a shaky start. But this third and final instalment of series 3 was right back on form. The much sought-after ‘actual plot’ that many lamented the absence of in previous episodes finally materialised. And there was a fabulous cliff-hanger to boot.

We finally got to meet the man belonging to the pair of icy blue eyes that stared out at us on New Year’s Day as Watson sautéed on the bonfire: Charles Augustus Magnusson (a thrillingly evil Lars Mikkelsen), sole retainer of a gigantic amount of incriminating information on everyone he’d ever come across, and also a massive creep. When he wasn’t licking people’s faces, he was busy blackmailing the entire country. But not for much longer. Enter Sherlock.

A slightly squalid Sherlock, actually, hiding out in a drug den – supposedly for a case. ‘Stay out of my bedroom!’ he ordered once he’d been dragged home and scolded by everyone (not to mention slapped a few times by the wonderful Molly, who hasn’t had nearly enough to do this series). Sherlock was clean, it turned out. So what was he hiding in the bedroom? Only the flirty Irish bridesmaid from last week! Watson’s incredulous response to this ‘relationship’ was priceless – Martin Freeman is the king of reaction shots. But Sherlock had morphine pumping through his veins soon enough, this time in hospital: he’d been shot. The culprit? None other than Mrs Watson.

Oh, Mary! What a dark horse, stringing us along in your jovial manner! We saw the word ‘liar’ on the screen alongside ‘bakes own bread’ when Sherlock first met Mary, but we chose to ignore it because she was just so nice. Yet suddenly here she was, putting a bullet through him. It was a clever twist, and credit to Amanda Abbington for making us invest so much in her character in just a few episodes that the big reveal, when it came, was a genuine shock.

A series of confrontations followed, amusingly interspersed with Christmas at the Cumberbatches (with Benedict’s parents reprising their roles as Mr and Mrs Holmes). It was thrilling, but perhaps not to the extent of previous finales. Two years ago, Sherlock was the sharpest thing on TV. This year it knew it, and veered dangerously towards self-indulgence a few too many times. But you can’t fault its intelligence. There were lines in this episode that wouldn’t have been out of place in a sitcom, but as always they were woven around a much darker story – in this case one that played to very current fears of surveillance and exposure. Beneath all the panache, Sherlock remains a beautifully crafted drama.

After a final rendezvous with Magnusson (in what appeared to be the Tellytubby house crossed with Kew Gardens), Sherlock was on a jet headed for certain death in Eastern Europe. Not again. But oh, how they toy with us! Just as the credits began to roll, a voice piped up: ‘Did you miss me?’ And there he was in all his mad glory: Jim Moriarty. As quickly as it had taken off, Sherlock’s jet was landing. Yes, Moriarty! We did miss you! Come back and engineer some real crimes! Blackmail and face-licking are one thing, but not a patch on the havoc you used to cause! Let’s just hope your mayhem isn’t another two years in the making.

Picture: Guardian

Sherlock, BBC1. Read the review on Varsity here.

It was the question on everyone’s lips: why did Watson feel the need to grow that moustache? Oh and also, how did Sherlock manage the whole roof-jumping, death-faking thing in the second series finale two years ago? The Empty Hearse – the long-awaited and much-hyped opener to series three – promised to reveal all. And for the most part it did. But did it match the brilliance we became used to in the first couple of series? That’s up for debate.

At the beginning of the episode, Sherlock is ‘dead’. Watson is grieving, but also preparing to propose to his new(ish) girlfriend. Mrs Hudson is angry at his lack of contact, thrilled by the news of his upcoming nuptials, and once again surprised by his sexual orientation. Anderson has apparently turned into one of those people who make YouTube videos about how Sherlock threw himself off a building without dying. (All very meta, I know).

Ah yes, the roof-jumping. Finally, we were going to find out what actually occurred behind that lorry full of bin bags. But not, it seemed, until we’d sat through a couple of red herrings. It’s a shame that they were red herrings, because I quite enjoyed the plan that hinged on Derren Brown hypnotising an already-concussed Watson. In the end, though, Sherlock survived with a giant blue bouncy castle, a dead ringer (literally) and a couple of dozen homeless people. That’s what Sherlock tells a slightly deranged Anderson, anyway. As for the moustache? Still a mystery.

Back to the present, and Sherlock is being tortured in Serbia, until Mycroft casually steps in and summons his brother back to London. The reason is an imminent terrorist attack on the capital. But that can wait. First, we need a few emotional reunions. Except that Sherlock doesn’t do emotional. He prefers dressing up as a French waiter and crashing a marriage proposal: much more dramatic. As always, it was Sherlock’s endearing lack of social and emotional tact that made for the most entertaining moments of this episode. Where plot was concerned, though, it fell short.

The trouble was that this episode felt aimed towards diehard Sherlock fans, and less towards people who just like watching good TV. Time was spent poking fun at fangirls when it should have been used to move the story along. As a result, the Guy Fawkes-inspired plot to blow up Westminster using the Underground felt rushed and was resolved all too quickly and simply. I’m now wondering how many films and series of Homeland could have ended sooner with the knowledge that bombs have ‘off’ switches. Overall though, it was an enjoyable episode, with the usual razor-sharp script and top-notch acting we’ve come to expect. Now that Sherlock is firmly installed back in Baker Street, the upcoming episodes will hopefully be back to usual form.

Just one more niggle: I could have done without the edgy shots of the Underground. The Tube is not that cool. And it’s never that empty.

Picture: Channel 4

Raised by Wolves, Channel 4 – read it on Varsity here.

Caitlin Moran clearly knows her stuff when it comes to television: her TV reviews for The Times were essential Saturday morning reading. So how did she and her sister, Caroline, fare when it came to her first foray onto the other side of the fourth wall?

Raised By Wolves is, according to Moran, a modern-day reimagining of her upbringing on a Wolverhampton council estate. At the start of the episode, Pixie Lott’s ‘Boys and Girls’ plays whilst a crowd of school-uniformed teenagers traipse homeward. It could be the beginning of Waterloo Road, until the camera follows a Fruit Shoot bottle hurled by a boy over a hedge and into the scruffy front garden of our home-schooled protagonists. Germaine (based on Caitlin) is a gothic, loud-mouthed teenager, who throughout the episode (a pilot for Channel 4) muses on a range of topics from cheese to vaginas whilst her sister, the studious Aretha (inspired by Caroline), sighs and rolls her eyes in the background and goes back to reading Ted Hughes.

Whilst many viewers took advantage of the programme’s title to claim they were ‘howling with laughter’ throughout, I found Raised By Wolves more intriguing than outright hilarious – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s certainly an underexplored concept – as noted by Moran, intellectual working class families don’t generally get a lot of airtime – so this aspect is certainly welcome. The script is sharp, stuffed full of cultural references, and often very witty. (‘Sisterly trust,’ says Germaine to Aretha, trying to avoid being locked in the garden shed. ‘No – bigger than that. Trusthouse Forte. The National Trust.’  At one point, their grandfather references ‘AA Gill’s Winnie the Pooh’.) Still, it didn’t raise as many laughs as might have been expected.

Helen Monks is entertaining as Germaine, but her delivery sometimes feels a little too scripted and not entirely spontaneous. Alexa Davies was convincing as Aretha, although we learnt little about the character aside from her views on the importance of education. Most entertaining was Della (Rebekah Staton), Germaine and Aretha’s mum, whose idea of good parenting is smoking out of the window. She spent a lot of the episode predicting the breakdown of society, and employing her curse of choice – ‘fucking David Cameron’ – with gusto.

So whilst I wasn’t laughing all the way through, I did enjoy Raised By Wolves, and I’d be prepared to give it another chance if Channel 4 goes ahead and commissions a full series. Besides, TV needs more frank jokes about vaginas. And if anyone can provide that, it’s Moran.

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: BBC

The Escape Artist, BBC One

Another Varsity review. Original here.

I spent the first two episodes of The Escape Artist wondering a) why characters in crime dramas always live in houses with floor to ceiling windows and b) why these characters never bother to furnish these windows with curtains. There were countless instances where shadowy figures lurked threateningly outside houses that could have been avoided with a quick trip to John Lewis. The final episode of the trilogy presented fewer jumpy moments, but tension levels were still high.

Not least because early on Liam Foyle, the man who murdered defence lawyer Will Burton’s (David Tennant) wife, walks free, assisted by Burton’s professional rival, hard-line lawyer Maggie Gardner (Sophie Okonedo). What follows is clever, because we automatically construct our own version of the story before anything happens on screen. What would we do in Will’s position? Get away, probably, to somewhere remote. Cut to an exposed beach. Under a steely grey sky, Will and his son fish for limpets in a rocky stream. They cook the limpets in battered saucepans, outside a grey and white stone cottage. It’s peaceful. Will appears to have done as expected.

An interview with a law firm up in Scotland is followed by a drive into the remote countryside, bringing Will to an isolated pub where he asks to use the toilet. So far so ordinary. But then suddenly there he is: Liam Foyle (a chilling Toby Kebbell) slowly exiting a cubicle and washing his hands in the basin. It’s a heart-in-mouth moment. As he surveys Foyle through the bathroom mirror, Burton’s fear is palpable – Tennant’s ability to project every kind of emotion entirely authentically is never in doubt, and this scene is a prime example.

For a while we think it’s some horrible coincidence, or that Foyle is still bent on terrorising Will. Only when Will begins to follow Foyle’s car through the forest to a dilapidated cabin does it become clear that this meeting may have been planned.

But the true sequence of events isn’t revealed until the final scene, in an Agatha Christie-esque breakdown of events by a meticulous Maggie. Will’s formerly gallant-seeming bid to save Foyle’s life after an allergic reaction takes on a whole new significance in light of Maggie’s revelations. It was a satisfying ending, which was welcome given that these kinds of dramas so often end ambiguously. Nonetheless, I found myself wondering what Maggie would have done had Foyle’s body not been cremated. Her delight in having rumbled Will was evident. Would she have kept his secret quiet? And what about Will himself? He won the ‘not proven’ verdict, but could he ever truly escape from his ordeal? Probably not.

I was unsure of what to make of The Escape Artist at first. It seemed to begin as a subtle psychological piece, quickly developing into a pacey thriller. This final instalment proved it to be a cleverly constructed piece of drama, choc full of twists and turns up until the very end. Enjoyable, if not that believable – and distinctly lacking in curtains.

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.