Once upon a time you knew exactly where you stood with the TV channels and drama. In the 70’s the BBC did costume dramas such as Poldark (complete with shirts), The Onedin Lineand The Duchess of Duke Street; ITV meanwhile did tough crime and action dramas such as The Sweeney, The Professionals and The New Avengers. Now it’s all changed. Post Downton, the BBC is concentrating on tough dramas such as Happy Valley (plot spoiler: it’s not very happy in that valley), The Missing (plot spoiler: it doesn’t work out well) and The Night Manager (plot spoiler: anyone could die at any point and probably will). Meanwhile ITV has really dusted down the dressing-up box and has released Houdini and Doyle, Doctor Thorne and Grantchester on us.
Houdini and Doyle was a simulcast with ITV Encore (its drama channel) and it will exclusively live there from now onwards. It’s also a tri-country co-pro between the UK, US and Canada (who said the Empire was dead). This has resulted in the casting of the leads sounding like a joke; “an Englishman, American and a Canadian walk into a period drama”. The unlikely scenario is actually based on reality. Harry Houdini was a sceptic who didn’t believe in anything spiritual, whereas Arthur Conan Doyle (author of Sherlock Holmes, not Sherlock, that was Stephen Moffat) believed hook, line and sinker in all that. Apparently, even with their theological differences, they became friends. I suppose it would just be like Penn and Teller teaming up with Anne Widdicombe. Yeah, that ain’t going to happen is it?
In this drama, Houdini and Doyle go on to crack crime. They are assisted by the third, lesser cast member (the Canadian), who plays the alleged first female PC, who speaks the Queen’s English with an occasional Canadian twang. The whole thing is shot with a Steampunk feel and a rock soundtrack. Historical accuracy is not a big factor in this show. Looking at Adelaide Stratton’s uniform, it appeared to be your traditional Victorian ladies’ dress, but in pinstripe with Police cuffs, ID numbers on the collar and a whistle. (I think you can buy it on Amazon.) Stephen Mangan has referred to it as being “Jonathan Creek wrestling Mr Selfridge” and actually that is a pretty good description. However they seem to have used Mr Selfridge for the magic and Jonathan Creek for the costumes and sets.
ITV has gone back to Downton creator (Sir? Lord? King?) Julian Fellowes to pen its (hopefully) next big Sunday night drama. He has adapted Anthony Trollope’s Doctor Thorne for the small screen. Rev star Tom Hollander plays the titular Doctor Thorne and now strides across BBC and ITV in the 9:00pm Sunday night slot, simultaneously appearing in this and The Night Manager. The two characters couldn’t be more different however. In The Night Manager he is the psychotic Lance Corcoran who you really don’t want to get on the wrong side of, whereas in Doctor Thorne he plays the benign doctor looking after his niece.
I have to admit that I’m not a Trollope expert (Anthony or Joanna) but I did study Robert Hardy at O Level, so a bonnet and man on a horse always brings me out in a cold sweat. And the lead character, Mary, has a bonnet. I mean a serious bonnet. Imagine 2 Sky satellite dishes welded together to form a bonnet and you would be getting somewhere close. The characterisations are all straight out of Downton. Rebecca Front plays Lady Arabella Gresham who has all the Maggie Smith lines (including introducing to us the idea of a “dressing gong”. I don’t need a gong to tell me when to get dressed. I just naturally do it in between watching This Morning and Loose Women. Doesn’t everyone?). Ian MacShane plays a ne’er do well (with great teeth) who appears to be channelling Sean Bean and the De Courcy family seem to be important in some way; but there was no sign of Nookie bear. (Fun Roger De Courcey fact: he manages prog rock keyboard playing, cape wearing legend Rick Wakeman. Less fun fact: he supports Crystal Palace.) There is just one weird technical difficulty which I can’t get over though. The whole thing has a crazy depth of field. This is when the character at the front of the shot is clear and the background is blurry. The actors are so sharp and the background so blurred, it looks like all the exteriors have been shot against a green screen. Anyhow, a minor point.
The exteriors in Grantchester have definitely been filmed au naturel, as were the actors in the opening episode of the new series. Stealing a trick from the reboot of Poldark, the producers decided to start the episode with belligerent policeman (Robson Greene) and hunky cleric (James Norton) stripping down to their undies and having a dip in a river. Other stuff happened but I wasn’t really paying attention. Grantchester appears to be Midsomer Murdersfrom 50 years ago; but hey, if they can time-shift Inspector Morse back to his youth in Endeavour, why not. If it works for the X-Men, why not do it in TV drama as well.
This episode featured Neil Morrissey with a moustache; Raquel from Only Fools and Horsesas a housekeeper and lots of vicars having tea and smoking. A girl got murdered but it was in a very pleasant 1950’s way (unlike in The Night Manager) and it all worked out in the end. Yes, ITV Certainly knows how to film every drama through the rose-tinted lens. But with most us facing the prospect of a day at work the next day, perhaps this escapism is what we need. Now I must go and get dressed as I’ve just heard the dressing gong. Oh did I not mention that in an homage to Grantchester I was writing this entire review just wearing my undies?