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: 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.

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: 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.

Homeland, Channel 4

It’s been a while since Homeland last graced our screens, so the hefty recap at the beginning of this episode was most welcome. Once we’d got our heads round the not-so-recent chain of events (which culminated in the detonation of a car bomb at Langley, and a resulting 219 casualties in a nail-biting season finale) we were plunged straight back into the action, a mere 58 days later.

Well, I say plunged, but compared to what we’re used to with Homeland – unflagging drama interspersed with excruciating tension from start to finish – it was more of a light paddle. The only real moment of tension was the Wizard of Oz-themed (it was more tense than it sounds, I promise) operation involving the ever-enigmatic and ruthless Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend). First episodes of new seasons are always difficult, though, because they do require a certain amount of scene setting.

Much of the episode focussed on the reaction of Brody’s family to his disappearance and framing as the culprit for the Langley attack (in case you’d forgotten, Brody did a runner at the end of the last season when the car containing the bomb turned out to be his own.) Dana, in particular, has suffered heavily the consequences of her father’s fall from grace. In this episode she has just returned from therapy after an attempted suicide. We witness her mother, Jessica’s (Morena Baccarin) worry as she struggles to come to terms with her new situation. She’s applying for accountancy jobs while Dana (Morgan Saylor) is in her room sending nude pictures to a boy she met in therapy. Whilst I have enjoyed the subplots involving the Brody family in previous seasons, I’m not sure how I feel about their stories dominating an episode as they did on Sunday. They work well as supporting characters but I can’t see their scenes sustaining similar amounts of interest to those involving Brody or Carrie.

Carrie (Claire Danes) is still scribbling intensely on notepads and creating hugely intricate wall displays (can I hire her to decorate my new room?). Citing ‘alternative medicine’, she’s off the lithium again and supplementing her daily 6 mile run with copious amounts of tequila, which she picks up (apparently in addition to random strangers) from the off-licence round the corner. Throughout this episode Danes once again proves that she is entirely worthy of the numerous awards she has won for her portrayal of Carrie. Her meltdown in the restaurant certainly packed a punch, whilst her reaction to being let down by Saul at the close of the episode was especially poignant.

What of Saul himself? He’s busy trying to save any ounce of CIA credibility he can alongside the sinister Dar Adal (F. Murray Abraham), who we met last series (and who I can’t remember anything about, except that he was shady – I think a quick Wikipedia visit is due). Saul suspects Adal of leaking information about Carrie and Brody to the inquiry, something Adal denies (but doesn’t necessarily disapprove of).

On the whole, it was a slightly slow start to the new series. But it was classic Homeland in the sense that the viewer can trust no one. We’ve also seen nothing of Brody (Damian Lewis) yet, and limited amounts of Quinn and Carrie. Hopefully the pace will pick up next week – I’ll definitely be watching.

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.