Breathless: ITV follows Netflix into retro drama territory
Jack Davenport leads cast as suave gynaecologist but does this hospital drama have enough depth?
WHATEVER led ITV to think early-1960s gynaecology was a winning subject for its glossy new series? Breathless, a period drama in more ways than one, is certainly a departure from the channel’s cosy teatime stock-in-trade.
Put it down to Netflix, the American video-streaming service that put the wind up TV execs with its data-driven approach to commissioning new shows. The numbers showed that viewers who lapped up films directed by David Fincher and starring Kevin Spacey also had a soft spot for a 20-year-old BBC series – and so Netflix spent $100m on the actor, the director and the rights to House of Cards.
Well, the ITV commissioning editors might have thought, two can play at that game. Critics can’t get enough of Mad Men, audiences flock to Call the Midwife and everyone likes that guy from This Life. And so Jack Davenport became Otto Powell, a suave hospital gynaecologist by day and performer of as-yet-still-illegal abortions by night.
Comparisons with Mad Men would be less fair if the programme didn’t invite them from the beginning. From the bold graphic-art title sequence to the crisp, saturated colour of the film stock, there’s no doubt about this show’s lineage. Even the NHS hospital bears a striking resemblance to the Manhattan offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Although in Breathless, the flame-haired female lead (played by Zoe Boyle) is Jean, not Joan.
If Breathless is to succeed, it needs to find real drama under the gloss. It isn’t there yet, but there are promising signs.
Davenport’s character, locked in a sham of a marriage, shows signs of depth and complexity. So too does Catherine Steadman, playing a young nurse caught between the repressions of the 1950s and the freedoms of the decade to come. Appalled by Otto’s involvement in illicit abortions, she is nevertheless bold, confident, headstrong and modern.
The other characters, sadly, are less interesting. The men are patrician or foppish. The young women are foolish and obsessed with marriage. And the matron, of course, is stern and domineering.
These broad brushstrokes are well-suited to comedy, of which there are a few choice examples. In one wry scene, Otto tells a young couple who have been trying, unsuccessfully, to conceive that the woman is virgo intacta. “Super,” says the callow young man. “I knew there was nothing wrong.”
It is, however, less conducive to drama. There’s too much gloss on the surface and not enough depth to underpin it. That could change. In part one we glimpsed a gun, which convention suggests will be fired without too much delay. A compelling plot – and some flesh on the supporting characters – would lift Breathless out of the ordinary.
Holden Frith, Editor of TheWeek.co.uk, will be writing regularly on new television and other digital media developments. ·