Breathless, ITV | TV reviews, news & interviews
Sex but no sexual revolution in saga of swingin' Sixties gynaecologists
Period dramas are all the rage, and you can imagine Breathless being plucked with forceps from a steaming cauldron in which bubbled Call the Midwife, The Hour, Mad Men, Heartbeat and inevitably a sprig of Downton, which couldn't hurt. It's 1961, the National Health Service is still regarded as one of the wonders of the known universe, and women are foolish little things who wear stylish frocks, are obsessed with hair and nails and keep getting themselves up the duff. As one posh lady put it, inadvertently finding herself in an "interesting" condition, "I've been such a silly muffin."
Luckily men are on hand to run everything and gallop to the rescue. In particular, we zoom in on dashing, debonair Dr Otto Powell (Jack Davenport) and his squad of gynaecologists as they go about their business in a rather modern and fashionable-looking NHS hospital in London. Powell embodies every cliché of patriarchal, condescending surgeon-hood with a haughty dose of God-complex for good measure. Wearing a permanent smirk of self-satisfaction beneath his Brylcreemed barnet, he comes on like a hybrid of James Bond and Barry "Hamster of Lurve" White, eyeing up the ladies like an amorous horse-breeder and treating his fellow medicos with a disdain bordering on contempt.
The opening scene, for instance, depicted Powell striding boldly into the operating theatre where his colleague Richard Truscott (Oliver Chris) was struggling with the wayward plumbing of the luckless Maureen Mulligan (Holli Dempsey). With a twist here, a snip there and a stitch in time, Powell averted gynae-calamity with nerveless aplomb and with plenty of sang-froid to spare.
It's a little early to tell whether Powell is bastard, big-head or merely misunderstood (though he doesn't look complicated enough for the last of these options). He runs a side-operation of bespoke abortions, discovery of which could end his career overnight since the practice was still illegal at the time. He professes to be doing it to curb the trail of misery resulting from unwanted births, but he may may be doing it out of bravado or merely for a fat profit.
He's undoubtedly a man with skeletons in his closet. There's been a hint that he was involved in some military trouble in Cyprus, and Powell keeps a hefty service revolver in the desk of his office in his home in some leafily desirable suburb (somewhere in Surrey, perhaps). "It's just for insurance - best be prepared," he reassures his sad-looking wife Elizabeth (Natasha Little, pictured above with Davenport), who apparently knows very little of what's going on in her husband's head, or indeed other parts of his body.
When we're not Upstairs with the doctors, we're Downstairs with the nurses. Dr Truscott is about to marry vivacious, flame-haired Jean (Zoe Boyle), but thanks to her idiotic paramour she's struggling with an unwanted pregnancy of her own. She's also concealing from him the existence of her batty father, who looks like he's suffering from some kind of post-traumatic syndrome. Her sister Angela, meanwhile (Catherine Steadman, pictured above left with Holli Dempsey), has registered on Powell's radar, and the fact that she's feisty and has a mind of her own is having the disastrous effect of inflaming his desires. Actually it's all highly watchable and the Sixties trappings are unusually well done, but after one episode it's impossible to tell whether Breathless is merely nonsense or shaping up into something substantial.
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?
The artist who destroys things in order to create new ones
Joseph Conrad swamped in melodrama and turgid music
Glossy, superficial and cartoonish – you may be hunting for the remote
Not comedy, not documentary and offering some very poor advice
Flashes of promise, but mixed results for Channel 4's inconsistent CV
The Victorian fairy tale that influenced social reform
Variation on cop buddy drama unfolds on the clean streets of Montreal
Penelope Wilton sells sex toys in the foundation myth of Ann Summers
Dr Freud takes his turn in the psychiatrist's chair
Enlightenment battles superstition in this new historical chiller
In an evening of unexpected victories, Sky News did surprisingly well
Outstanding legal drama draws to a not-quite-perfect close