13 January 2016

TV Review: Jericho Episode One

Review by Tom Newsom

New Year, new telly, and a brand new contender for Downton Abbey’s old crown. It’s been billed as a “Yorkshire Western”, which is a great idea in itself. Then I heard it’s also backed up by real history (workers building the viaduct for the railways), which proves even more interesting, a sort of alternative Victorian history that shakes up the usual costume drama route.

It’s a brave move then, for ITV to make it, and hire Steve “Sherlock and Doctor Who” Thompson - a good writer, but you really need an amazing one to pull off the script that this is crying out for. What story there was seemed ridiculously oversimplified, and barely scraped the sides of the glacial one hour running time (in a ninety minute slot - short changed even by ITV’s standards).

Instead of plot then, the focus was on scene-setting. The scenery is plain - wooden huts on moorland - but adds to the Western atmosphere, and the community just about feels realistic, given the large amount of extras. The cast is onto a good thing - Sophie Thompson, Lorraine Ashbourne, Mark Addy as a detective - a tour of the North, ITV style. Jessica Raine and Clarke Peters stand out as the leads, because they’ve been given the meatiest roles in this, which is saying something. Jessica Raine’s character is a resourceful, Victorian-feisty mother, trapped in a corset and an eight episode contract; Clarke Peters doesn’t do or say an awful lot, much like the other ‘regulars’. All of the characters seem to drift through the episode, and by the end of it, you’re left with little clue as to how the events will affect the characters in future, or what it all really means.

And it’s so very ITV. There’s a moment where the big event in the episode happens - only one, you can’t miss it - and when we get there, everybody switches into Saying Exactly What They Mean, until the end of the episode. It would be passable if the whole thing didn’t feel so deathly slow, or foreshadowed twenty minutes before. One of the characters said that “the viaduct’s finished” - I hoped this meant that the series was over, rather than just their Victorian Business Plan going wrong. There’s also a death, at night, which the series will pivot around - but the scene and the sudden sight of blood just felt misjudged rather than edgy, as if somebody had pasted it in from another production.

It really isn’t the idea itself though, it’s in the writing and handling of it. There are plenty of counterparts that I’ve enjoyed in the last couple of years: Peter Moffat’s great series The Village told rural themed stories also in Yorkshire, going from a child’s eye view, to people going off to the World War, and the more hopeful years following. Sarah Phelps wrote about a field hospital in the War in The Crimson Field, almost a Western in its community fighting for survival, and interconnecting interesting class-based characters in an era of change. John Fay created The Mill, which showed the lives of the poorest Victorians with all of their slang and accents and cheek and fighting for employment rights. Yes, all three of these needed time to build up their worlds and characters. But they also felt, on screen, that far more love and care had been taken. This episode reminded me of the first one of Mr Selfridge (the only one I’ve seen), an increasingly ludicrous checklist of a drama.

The music got to me too, in the end. It goes full on Western in places, never letting you forget what this outpost is meant to stand for. But the tone was too chipper and lively for... what? Are we meant to see these people as poor, hard-bitten, on the edge of society? Or people coming together in a heart-warming tale of survival? It's hard to tell if these people are meant to represent outlaws or pioneers or whatever. Really, it felt as dangerous as a leisurely stroll down the high street - and people die in this!

It’s not unwatchable, just a completely uninteresting take on what was a promising concept.

No comments:

Post a Comment