Belgravia 1/6, Sunday 15th March, 9pm, ITV
Hurrah! Sunday nights are traditionally the most depressing time if the week in our house, as we confront another week of stultifying drudgery and kiss a fond goodbye to a weekend of unabashed hedonism (which, in my case, now constitutes an extra glass of Sauvignon Blanc in front if the telly). But Sunday nights just got good again.
For many years, Julian Fellowes was responsible for the brightening of our Sunday evenings, with his glorious confection of soapy-toff-deliciousness that was Downton Abbey. And now he’s done it again, with this new six-part adaptation of Belgravia, his book about unemployed people living off benefits on a council estate.
Not really. It’s about incredibly wealthy people being looked down upon by even more incredibly wealthy people because the even more incredibly wealthy people were wealthy first, and are related to someone who once gave some land to King Richard or something. Don’t you just love the class system?
Anyway, it all begins pretty much as you’d expect. The opening title music sounds almost identical to the Downton theme. And lo, there are lots of people in posh 19th Century frocks and waistcoats. According to the title on screen, we’re in Brussels in 1815. Come on, Julian, leave means leave, we don’t want a six-part drama all about Eurocrats straightening our bananas!
Actually, there’s division of a rather more explosive nature on the horizon. We are on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo. Tomorrow, thousands of brave men will die, and Britain will either be rescued from, or conquered by, Napoleon. So what do the British denizens of Brussels decide to do? Why, throw a large society ball, of course. Nothing is likely to intimidate the French more than a bunch of men skipping about in their britches and sipping tiny glasses of port.
The Trenchard family has managed to secure invites, in spite of being of the (holds on to a nearby antique table and swoons slightly) merchant class. When the Duchess of Richmond discovers she’s invited such utter vulgarians to her esteemed, blue-blooded gathering, she looks like she might throw up her swan-and-caviar roulade.
But it’s all been arranged by Susan Trenchard (Alice Eve) and her dashing young beau Lord Edmund Bellasis (Jeremy Neumark Jones), who just happens to be the favourite nephew of the Duchess. They’re young and in love. What could possibly go wrong? Well, lots, according to Anne Trenchard (Tamsin Greig) who is firmly of the belief that no good will come of her daughter’s infatuation with a dirty great posho. Meanwhile, Anne’s hubby, played by Robert Glenister, an ambitious businessman, sees it as an opportunity for social advancement.
Why all the fuss? My wife and I are from wildly different backgrounds (me: London public school, her: the wilds of rural Fife) and we get on fine, except she occasionally puts on a posh voice and teases me for saying things like “That’s given me a real fillip!”. Anyway, the Duchess isn’t overly impressed with the family. “The mother isn’t too ridiculous, but the father is simply grotesque.” Ah, if I had a pound for every time I’d overheard parents looking at us and whispering that in the school playground.
Halfway through the ball, a message arrives, and all the soldiers have to leave for battle. Excellent. Nothing prepares a man for the carnage and slaughter of war like a bellyful of roast beef and a bottle of claret. They’ll probably try and snooze the French to death.
Twenty-six years later, in Belgravia, and the events of that night, and of the following days and weeks, are still taking a toll on the Trenchards and the poshos (they seem to have so many titles and names, I’m not sure what to call them), whom fate has seen to link in an unexpected way.
ITV’s publicity ahead of this series has stated quite firmly that this is NOT Downton in a different frock coat. It turns out it’s right. This is altogether less soapy fare, less comforting, and altogether sadder and more dramatic. But, if the first episode is anything to go by, it’s very good indeed. Sunday nights just got good again.
Kate and Koji 1/6, Wednesday 18th March, 8pm, ITV
Hands up who doesn’t adore Brenda Blethyn?
Anyone with their hands up needs to self-isolate. No, there’s nothing physically wrong with you, you just probably shouldn’t be allowed out in polite society. I mean, what’s wrong with you? It’s Brenda flippin’ Blethyn! It’s DCI Vera Stanhope, for heaven’s sake. She’s a national treasure. She’s Stonehenge in human form. (Although she’d probably like me to point out that she’s not 5000 years old, nor is she 13ft tall and weighing 40-tonnes).
Benjie discusses the ongoing popularity of Vera
Anyway, like all right-minded people, I think our Brenda’s fab. She can do no wrong in my eyes. Or can she? Because, oh lawks, she’s gone and made a sitcom for ITV. I mean, a sitcom? On ITV? ITV is to sitcoms what Vinnie Jones is to knitting. Indeed, it wasn’t so long ago that ITV basically said they were giving up on comedies. Last year, the Director of Programmes, Kevin Lygo, said that viewers could “get their fix of character-based comedy from Corrie.” If you go to ITV Hub and look at their comedy page where you can stream all their latest comedies, it consists of three episodes of an ITV2 sitcom, two episodes of Mr Bean from 30 years ago, and episodes of That’s My Boy and Only When I Laugh from 40 years ago. It’s like looking at a VHS bargain bucket in a charity shop for the Cat’s Protection League.
Mind you, the show’s not short of pedigree. It’s written by Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin, of Drop the Dead Donkey and Outnumbered fame, and also stars Jimmy Akingbola (Holby City, Rev, Arrow) Blake Harrison (The Inbetweeners) and Barbara Flynn (Cracker, Cranford). But it didn’t stop me watching with a sense of impending doom. I mean it’s a sitcom. On ITV.
Blethyn plays Kate Abbott, who runs a café in the quiet seaside town of Seagate. It’s more greasy spoon than artisanal hang-out. A caff, not a café. “Cafés have websites, and show the work of crap local artists,” says Kate. “And the menus are full of adjectives.” Mind you, her ‘caff’ isn’t exactly reeling the punters in. She’s got precisely one customer. And he seems to have been nursing a single cup of tea all morning. Just as he did the previous day.
He turns out to be Koji (Akingbola), a doctor, who is seeking asylum in the UK. Kate is unimpressed. Why can’t he just stay in his own country. “I’d get killed,” he says bitterly. “And I’d rather not get killed. Call me a snowflake.” There may be milk in Koji’s coffee, but the milk of human kindness seems to be in short supply in Kate’s caff. “He’s living off our money,” she complains to her nephew, a kindly chap called Medium (Harrison).
Yep, he’s living the high life alright. On the princely sum of £37-per-week. Not that Kate cares. “There’s four things I hate in life: Scroungers, foreigners, doctors and posh people, and he’s all four.” It’s fair to say, she’s unlikely to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She’d like Koji out of her caff, and out of her country. But the two of them begin to recognise that there may be a mutually beneficial arrangement they can come to.
I think it’s safe to say that we all know what’s going to happen. Walls will be broken down, Kate and Koji will gradually form a friendship, and Kate will begin to see the error of her ways. Much like Channel 4’s recent sitcom, this wears its liberal heart on its sleeve, and will doubtless irritate those whose feelings are of a more isolationist bent. But the show has good actors delivering fine performances, and I suspect that beneath the (occasionally dated) jokes, there beats a warm heart.
The best… and the rest
Monday 16th March
Miss World 1970: Beauty Queens and Bedlam, 9pm, BBC Two: To coincide with the film, Misbehaviour, dramatizing this story, this documentary speaks to some of the key players and uses animation and archive footage to tell the story of how feminist demonstrators interrupted the 1970 Miss World competition in front of a global TV audience, and kickstarted a revolution.
Henry VIII and Trump: History Repeating, 9pm, Channel 5: Documentary essentially asserting that the famed monarch and the orange one are one and the same. Ivanka can thank her stars she wasn’t beheaded, then…
Tuesday 17th March
Cops Like Us 1/3, 9pm, BBC Two: Members of the Staffordshire Police Force talk about their frustrations of being on the beat in Stoke-on-Trent, one of the UK’s most deprived cities. Filmed over six months, this series follows them as they tackle gang culture, hate crime and domestic violence.
Penance 1/3, 9pm, Channel 5: Channel 5 dips another toe into the drama world, with this three-part thriller stripped across consecutive nights. A bereaved family struggles to cope in the aftermath of a son’s death, until a grief counsellor makes a big impression. Starring Julie Graham, Neil Morrissey and Nico Mallegro.
Wednesday 18th March
Taking Control: The Dominic Cummings Story, 9pm, BBC Two: Emily Maitlis looks at the life and career of the Prime Minister’s Special Advisor, a controversial figure who inspired strong reactions wherever he goes. Maitlis speaks to friends and foes alike, to get a fuller picture of the man who is at the centre of Government in one of the most crucial periods of our recent history.
Friday 20th March
24 Hours in A&E: Heart Special, 8pm, Channel 4: Cameras follow the cases of three critically ill patients suffering with cardiac problems at St George’s Hospital in South London.
Super Powered Eagles, 9pm, BBC Two: Natural history documentary following a family of bald eagles in Iowa. As you would expect, this is a film rich in spectacular footage and marvellous storytelling.